Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Clementine Hunter

Several years ago, my wife and I toured Natchez, Mississippi, and many of the beautiful antebellum homes for which the area is best known.  We stayed the weekend at the famous Monmouth Plantation, which has been converted to an historic bed and breakfast.  Among the dozen or so plantations we toured was one not far from Monmouth called Melrose.  It's a beautifully restored southern mansion/museum.  Strangely, its most famous historic personage was not a former owner but an elderly black woman who once worked there as a servant.

She was just one generation removed from slavery. Born in 1886 at Hidden Hill, a cotton plantation in Louisiana, until she was 35 she raised kids and picked cotton. She married and buried two husbands and had seven children. Eventually she became a domestic servant at Melrose Plantation. It was there she began creating her first works of art, sewing together scraps of cloth to make quilts. In 1940, at the age of 53, she painted her first picture, on an old window blind using left overs from castaway tubes of oils she found when an artist visited the plantation. She was encouraged by a French writer, Francois Mignon, who was also visiting the plantation, assessing the owner's sizable art collection. He gave her paint and more importantly, encouragement. Her name was Clementine Hunter.

Cane River Baptism.
Clementine Hunter
She painted plantation life, biblical scenes, and eventually, late in life, abstracts. Her work was primitive. She never had art class in her life, or for that matter, ever learned to read. She had barely the equivalent of two years of schooling. For years she gave her work to friends or sold it for a few dollars, scarcely enough to pay for the supplies. She even had private showings at her rundown shack out back of Melrose, charging 25 cents admission. In 1949, she was featured in an arts and crafts show in New Orleans where her work first attained public notice. By 1955 she was having her work exhibited at a number of local museums and colleges. At her first show, she could not attend the opening.  Because of her race, she was allowed in the back door afterwards. The owner of Melrose invited her to paint murals in a traditional African house on the plantation. By then in her sixties, she painted nine separate murals and numerous side panels depicting various scenes from the nearby area.

Clementine Hunter displaying one of her

By the 1970s, she had the dubious distinction of having her work copied, the forgeries sold as originals. At an exhibit of her work in Washington during the latter half of the decade, she also did not attend the opening even though she was sent a personal invitation by President Jimmy Carter. She is said to have remarked, "If Jimmy Carter wants to see me, he knows where I am. He can come here." The President didn't come to her but the media did as her work showed up in a television documentary and in various galleries all over the country. Eventually, she was able to buy a mobile home with the proceeds from her work and even though her paintings traveled broadly in various shows, she did not. She preferred to stay at home and paint.  She died in January of 1988 at the age of 101. During her lifetime she completed over five thousand paintings, working steadily up until the last month of her life. Other writers have referred to her as the black Grandma Moses. I would rather consider her an original unto herself.

No comments:

Post a Comment