Clementine Hunter was a self-taught artist whose work sheds light on the untold stories of African Americans working the land during the Jim Crow era.
Her art once sold for pennies but now sells for thousands of dollars and hangs on the walls of prestigious art galleries worldwide.
How did Hunter rise to such prominence?
Let’s find out!
The Story of Clementine Hunter
Clementine was born in 1886 to a creole family on a rural plantation in Louisiana. As a child, she was a farm laborer and never learned to read or write.
Hunter spent most of her early life working on the farm before moving to Melrose Plantation as a teenager. While she worked at Melrose, the home’s owner hosted several artists on the grounds under the condition that the artists create or leave.
In 1939, one of these artists left his supplies after his stay. Clementine found and used the brushes and paint to create her first piece of art, a painting of a river baptism on a window shade. Hunter was 59 years old when she began this new career.
She painted on anything that inspired her and would hold her paint. This includes jugs, bottles, gourdes, and discarded items, such as cardboard boxes. Clementine was also a talented sewer and depicted scenes from the plantation in her needlework.
In 1955, Hunter was the first African-American artist to have a solo art show at a gallery in New Orleans. Jim Crow laws prevented her from being in the college gallery with white patrons. So, she has to sneak in the back to see her own exhibition.
Clementine’s paintings now sell for thousands of dollars and hang on the walls of prestigious collections throughout the United States. Her work became so legendary that President Jimmy Carter invited her to the White House.
What Inspired Clementine Hunter?
Hunter is well-known as a prolific painter. Even though she didn’t start painting until her 50s, she produced more than 5,000 works of art. Her legacy was left on every surface available to her.
She painted scenes from the plantation world around her. Her work shows women hanging clothes to dry, funeral processions, and people in her community living their daily lives. Clementine used bright colors and the size and scale of things in her paintings to show how she felt about the people in her community. The larger the object, the more important it was to her.
Historians have noted her disregard for perspective and scale. Clementine’s art is a unique window into the world of the Jim Crow south.
What Mediums Did Clementine Hunter Work With?
Hunter was an adventurous artist who would take on almost any object that could act as a canvas. She was resourceful and used the items she could find on the site of the plantation. Clementine’s paintings are on everything from window shades, bottles, walls, and even vegetables.
Hunter was also a skillful sewer and chose needlework as another way to depict her daily life.
Inspiring Pieces by Clementine Hunter
The Apple Paring
In Apple Paring, we glimpse daily life at Melrose Plantation. In true Clementine style, she paints with bright colors. The woman sits facing the child but is proportionally much larger giving weight to her importance.
The lessons of the farm are taught at a young age, and the children are expected to work as soon as they’re able to do so. It appears they may be here a while as the woman sits under the shade of a large tree and the child rests beneath an umbrella. This beautiful oil on canvas is hanging at the American Folk Museum in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Cotton Mill is a beautiful illustration of Hunter’s resourcefulness as she uses oil paint on a piece of discarded wood. Here, we see several farm workers diligently working all aspects of a cotton mill, from bailing the cotton to transporting it for further refining. Though painted in 1953, the piece shows the mill still using farm animals to haul large wagon loads of cotton.
The world keeps spinning around them, but life on the plantation remains essentially the same. This work is also held in the collection at the American Folk Museum.
This iconic piece is held at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Clementine combined many elements to create vignettes of daily life for those working the plantation. Again, we see the farm hasn’t yet been mechanized as the hands work behind mules and plows.
The bright green and yellow plantation sits at the center of the painting, representing the centerpiece of life for those who rely on it for their wages.
Where Can I See Some of Clementine Hunter’s Art?
Hunter’s stories of life in rural Louisiana speak to us generations later, and we’re better because of that. We’ve found a couple of places where you can view her work in person.
New Orleans Museum of Art
The New Orleans Museum of Art is commonly known as NOMA. It’s located at One Collins Diboll Circle in City Park. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday. Ticket prices vary, but free parking is available on-site.
NOMA is a Blue Star Museum. Blue Star Museums is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and Blue Star Families, in collaboration with the Department of Defense and museums across America, offering free admission to the nation’s active-duty military personnel and their families, including National Guard and Reserve.
American Folk Art Museum
The American Folk Art Museum is in Midtown Manhattan, just west of Central Park. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is always free.
Although drop-ins are welcome, the museum strongly encourages making online reservations before visiting. Clementine’s work is part of the permanent collection, but you should call to verify whether it’s on display before visiting.
Is There a Documentary About Clementine Hunter?
In 2021, Louisiana Public Broadcasting aired a documentary titled Clementine Hunter’s World.
The film combines vintage photographs with Hunter’s colorful paintings to bring her story to life. Clementine painted thousands of images from her tiny cabin on the grounds of the rural Melrose Plantation. They provide a visual diary of African American life in Melrose and reveal colorful tales of life along Louisiana’s Cane River.
The film is part of The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture archives.
Hunter’s career can best be understood the same way as many artists. Her work is far more valuable now after her death than when she was actively creating over 5,000 individual pieces of work.
If you have the opportunity, it’s worth your time to stop by NOMA or the American Folk Art Museum. Thanks to the work of preservationists and filmmakers, we can better appreciate her work today.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!