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Clementine Hunter
American folk artist

Clementine Hunter

Clementine Hunter
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American folk artist
A.K.A. Tebé
Was Painter
From United States of America
Field Arts
Gender female
Birth 1889, Louisiana, USA
Death 1 January 1988, Natchitoches Parish, USA (aged 99 years)
Clementine Hunter
The details (from wikipedia)


Clementine Hunter (pronounced Clementeen) (late December 1886 or early January 1887 – January 1, 1988) was a self-taught Black folk artist from the Cane River region of Louisiana, who lived and worked on Melrose Plantation.

Hunter was born into a Louisiana Creole family at Hidden Hill Plantation, near Cloutierville, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana; she started working as a farm laborer when young, never learning to read or write. In her fifties, she began painting, using brushes and paints left by an artist who visited Melrose Plantation, where she then lived and worked. Hunter's artwork depicted plantation life in the early 20th century, documenting a bygone era. She sold her first paintings for as little as 25 cents. By the end of her life, her work was being exhibited in museums and sold by dealers for thousands of dollars. Hunter was granted an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree by Northwestern State University of Louisiana in 1986. She is the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the present-day New Orleans Museum of Art. In 2013, director Robert Wilson presented a new opera about her, entitled Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter, at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Biographical details

Baptism by Clementine Hunter. Mural (detail)

Clementine Hunter was born in late December 1886 or early January 1887 at Hidden Hill Plantation, near Cloutierville in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. She was baptized on March 19, 1887 in Cloutierville, and it is known that she was about three months old, but her exact date of birth is unknown, although she says she was born around Christmas. For the first part of her life, she went by the name Clémence, although she was baptized Clementiam. She changed her name to Clementine after moving to Melrose Plantation. Her family called her by the nickname Tébé, the French for "little baby," a nickname she carried into adulthood.

Her mother was Mary Antoinette Adams (d. 1905) and her father was Janvier (John) Reuben (d. ca. 1910), a field hand. Her parents were married on October 15, 1890. Her maternal grandparents were named Idole, who was formerly enslaved, and Billy Zack Adams. Her paternal grandfather was "an old Irishman" and her grandmother, "a black Indian lady called 'MeMe'" (pronounced May–May).

At the age of 15, Hunter moved to Melrose Plantation south of Natchitoches. She spent much of her life picking cotton and attended school for only 10 days, never learning to read or write.

Her first two children, Joseph (Frenchie) and Cora, were fathered by Charlie Dupree, whom Hunter said she did not marry. Dupree died around 1914. Later she married Emmanuel Hunter, a woodchopper at Melrose, in 1924. The two lived and worked at Melrose Plantation for many years. Hunter worked as a field hand in her early years there and then as a cook and housekeeper beginning in the late 1920s. Hunter bore seven children, two stillborn. On the morning before giving birth to one of her children, she picked 78 pounds of cotton, went home and called for the midwife. She was back picking cotton a few days later. Hunter lived her entire life in rural, northwest Louisiana, never going more than 100 miles from home.


Hunter was self-taught. Melrose Plantation became a mecca for the arts under the guidance of its owner, Cammie Henry, who created the artists' colony after the death of her husband, John Hampton. Numerous artists and writers visited, including Lyle Saxon, Roark Bradford, Alexander Woollcott, Rose Franken, Gwen Bristow, and Richard Avedon. Brushes and discarded tubes of paint, left by New Orleans artist Alberta Kinsey after a 1939 visit to Melrose Plantation, were used by Hunter to "mark a picture" on a window shade, beginning her career as an artist.

Clementine Hunter's first shows were in 1945 in Rosenwald Grant, Brownwood, and Waco Texas. In 1949, a show of Clementine Hunter's paintings at the New Orleans Arts and Crafts Show garnered attention outside of the Cane River Valley.

Hunter gained support from numerous individuals associated with Melrose Plantation, including François Mignon, plantation curator. He supplied her with paint and materials, and promoted her widely, and James Register. With Mignon's help, Hunter's paintings were displayed in the local drugstore, where they were sold for one dollar.

In 1956, Clementine Hunter and François Mignon coauthored Melrose Plantation Cookbook, featuring photographs of Melrose Plantation, illustrations drawn by Hunter, and recipes. Clementine Hunter dictated the recipes to Mignon because he legally blind and she was illiterate. Hunter was skilled at reinterpreting traditional dishes, which were passed down in her family by oral tradition.

In late 1971, sixty of Clementine Hunter's paintings were shown at an exhibition at Louisiana State University.

On the outside of the unpainted cabin where she lived was a sign that read: "Clementine Hunter, Artist. 25 cents to Look." Clementine Hunter produced an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 paintings in her lifetime.

Hunter's art

Picking Cotton, c 1955

Clementine Hunter has become one of the most well-known self-taught artists. Hunter is described as a memory painter because she documented Black Southern life in the Cane River Valley in the early 20th century. Clementine Hunter is an entirely self-taught painter and received no formal education, art or otherwise. Although she was first recognized for her painting skills in 1939, Hunter speaks about painting long before then. Her most famous work depicts brightly colored depictions of important events like funerals, baptisms, and weddings and scenes of plantation labor like picking cotton or pecans, and domestic labor. However, Clementine Hunter's paintings vary in subject and style, including many abstract paintings and still life paintings of zinnias.

Hunter lived in communities of Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers who by necessity learned to sew clothes and household items. Before she began painting, she would sew clothes for family, would make quilts, weave baskets. In 1924, she married Emanuel Hunter who also worked at Melrose, and the two moved into a home on the Melrose Plantation. Clementine Hunter speaks about working in the plantation fields picking pecans and cotton while pregnant and raising young children in the following years. However by the late 1920s, she began working in Cammie Henry's home as a domestic servant. She would sew clothes and dolls for Henry's family, as well as other home goods for the Melrose Plantation.

François Mignon recognized Hunter's talents with fabric and sewing before he saw any of her painted works. On December 19, 1939 Mignon records in his journals that Clementine (Mignon calls her Clemence) first shows him dolls she created with embroidered features. Additionally, he writes that she is exceptionally talented at making fringe and can spin cotton, which is a pastime of Melrose's owner Cammie Henry. She was interested in the preservation of Southern craft making and wanted the domestic servants at Melrose Plantation to be able to weave. Even though Hunter tells Mignon that she dislikes spinning, Cammie Henry regularly experimented with different materials for spinning and weaving while at Melrose. James Register also records Clementine Hunter's exceptional skill at making fringe in an article in the Natchitoches Times in 1972. Clementine Hunter could also make hand-tied lace curtains.

Hunter's quilts and tapestries are clear examples of her artistic talent before she began painting, and feature subjects and her color palette that are central to the majority of her artwork. Many of her quilts are titled "Melrose Quilt" or "Melrose Plantation" Textile or Tapestry as many of them depict buildings on the Melrose grounds. The Melrose Plantation Textile, which is hand appliquéd and sewn, is from 1938 or 1939, and features prominent Melrose Plantation buildings and Black people in boats on the Cane River and Black women in dresses. Most of Hunter's textile work is owned in private collections, however, a photograph of Hunter in her come shows her using one of her Chevron as a couch covering. Each square is hand sewn together. Many of Hunter's quilts are not batted, which signals that they are designed to hang as a tapestry, rather than serve a household function.

Hunter made several quilts that are more abstract. One Chevron Quilt is at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Some of the squares of chevron are alternating solid colors, while other squares are pieces of scrap patterned cloth. Although Hunter's abstract paintings made in 1962 and 1936 are generally regarded as a break in her canon, it's clear that her early textile work and paintings play with abstraction and impressionism. Additionally, Shelby Gilley's collection of Hunter's "Crazy Quilts" or Chevron quilts are dated as 1960, and the Chevron Quilt at the New Orleans Museum of Art is dated 1951, before her collaboration with James Register.

Hunter's paintings changed throughout her lifetime. Her early work, such as "Cane River Baptism" from 1950, features more earth tones and muted colors. Before the patronage and support from François Mignon and others, Hunter used paint left by visiting artists at Melrose Plantation, therefore she was working within other artists' palettes. Additionally, Hunter would frequently thin out her supply of paint with turpentine, creating more of a watercolor effect, which promoted many Hunter scholars to believe she had a watercolor experimental phase. From the 1950s on, her painting style was altered by her arthritis in her hands. From this period on, she leaned more towards abstract and impressionist work, with less fine detail, because it was difficult for her to paint. In 1962, her friend James Pipes Register encouraged her to become even more abstract, painting works like Clementine Makes a Quilt. However, by 1964, Hunter returned to more narrative works. In the 1980s, as she approached one hundred years old, she began painting on smaller, more handheld objects like jugs.

Clementine Hunter painted from memory, “I just get it in m mind and I just go ahead and paint but I can’t look at nothing and paint. No trees, no nothing. I just make my own tree in my mind, that’s the way I paint.”

Hunter's largest work is a series of murals in the African House at Melrose Plantation. Built the early 19th century by enslaved people at Melrose Plantation, the African House is a Creole hybridization of various African, French, Native American building traditions. However, little is known about its construction and early uses, however it is known that it served as a storehouse and during Cammie Henry's ownership as a residence for artists. In 1949, Clementine Hunter's first show in the Cane River Valley was hosted by Mignon in the upstairs area of the African House.Hunter painted Murals in the Yucca house and the main Melrose Plantation house. In 1955, Clementine Hunter and François Mignon collaborated to produce the series of paneled murals that capture the history of the Cane River Valley and reflect the artist's life. The mural consists of nine rectangular panels, each painted in Hunter's home studio. Completed over three months, the murals were finished Hunter was sixty-eight years old.

An article was published about Hunter in Look magazine in June 1953, giving her national exposure. A biography, Clementine Hunter: Cane River Artist (2012), was co-written by Tom Whitehead, a retired journalism professor who knew Hunter well. A director of the Museum of American Folk Art in Washington, D.C. described Hunter as "the most celebrated of all Southern contemporary painters."

Legacy and honors

Hunter was the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art). In February 1985, the museum hosted A New Orleans Salute to Clementine Hunter's Centennial, an exhibit in honor of her one-hundredth birthday. She achieved significant recognition during her lifetime, including an invitation to the White House from U.S. President Jimmy Carter and letters from both President Ronald Reagan and U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr.

Radcliffe College included Hunter in its Black Women Oral History Project, published in 1980. An interview with Clementine Hunter is part of the Black Women Oral History Project records, 1976-1997, housed at Harvard University, Radcliffe Institute, Schlesinger Library. In the Mildred H. Bailey Collection of Interviews at Northwestern State University of Louisiana, there are digitized interviews with Clementine Hunter and those closest to her.

Northwestern State University of Louisiana granted her an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1986. The following year, Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards designated her as an honorary colonel, a state honor, and aide-de-camp.

Hunter has been the subject of biographies and artist studies, and inspired other works of art. In 2013, composer Robert Wilson presented a new opera about her: Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter, at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Shinnerrie Jackson's one-woman musical Ain't I a Woman? honors the lives of four influential African American women, including Clementine Hunter.

Hunter's work can be found in numerous museums such as the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, the American Folk Art Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Louisiana State Museum.

Clementine Hunter's World is a 2017 documentary directed by noted Hunter scholar Art Shiver. The film celebrates Clementine Hunter's life and artwork through the lens of photographs, oral histories, and the newly resorted African House Murals. In addition to the film, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture created an exhibition centering on Clementine Hunter called "Clementine Hunter: Life on Melrose Plantation." According to Smithsonian American Art curator Tuliza Fleming, the 22 works by Hunter is the largest collection by a single artist at the museum.

In 2019, Louisiana State Legislators passed a resolution that designated October 1 as Clementine Hunter Day. Loletta Jones-Wynder, the director of the Creole Heritage Center at Northwestern State University of Louisiana, created the resolution to honor Clementine Hunter's legacy and impact on the State of Louisiana.

2009 forgery case

In 1974, there were rumors that Hunter forgeries were being sold by William J. Toye in New Orleans. Decades later, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) investigated reports of forgery of Hunter's works and raided the home of Toye in September 2009. Toye, who was accused of selling forged paintings three times over the course of four decades, pleaded guilty in federal court on June 6, 2011. Others, including a relative of Hunter's and one of Henry's have forged Hunter's artwork as well. Whitehead says Toye's fakes were the best. His forgeries were painted on vintage board and his brush strokes and monogram were good replicas of Hunter's. But Hunter normally left smudges on the backs of her work and marred the edges, distinguishing marks missing from Toye's counterfeits. Whitehead said that unlike the work of European masters, which generally has well-documented provenance, Hunter produced thousands of paintings, which she sold from her front door. Also, collectors spending millions are more prone to research the history of their prospective purchases than folk art collectors spending much less. The price for Hunter paintings range between a few thousand dollars to $20,000 according to Whitehead.

Selected collections

  • Funeral Procession, ca. 1950, Savannah College of Art and Design
  • Untitled, 1981, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.
  • The Wash, ca. 1950s, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN
  • Picking Cotton, ca. 1950s, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN
  • The Wash, ca. 1950s, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN

Studies and other related books

  • Mildred Hart Bailey, Four Women of Cane River (1980)
  • Shelby R. Gilley, Painting by Heart: The Life and Art of Clementine Hunter, Louisiana Folk Artist (2000), St. Emma Press
  • Clementine Hunter, Clementine Hunter: A Sketchbook (2014), University of New Orleans Press. ISBN 978-1-60801-036-3
  • Mary E. Lyons, Talking with Tebé (1998), Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780395720318
  • François Mignon, illustrated by Clementine Hunter, Melrose Plantation Cookbook (1956), ASIN B000CS68QA
  • Art Shiver, Tom Whitehead (editors), Clementine Hunter: The African House Murals (2005), Northwestern State University of Louisiana Press. ISBN 0-917898-24-9
  • Art Shiver, Tom Whitehead (co-authors), Clementine Hunter Her Life and Art (2012), LSU Press. ISBN 978-0-8071-4878-5
  • James Register, illustrated by Clementine Hunter, The Joyous Coast (1971), Mid-South Press, Shreveport, Louisiana
  • James Wilson, Clementine Hunter: American Folk Artist (1990), Pelican Publishing Company
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 27 Apr 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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