Outside the Outsiders
Clementine Hunter: Her Life and Art
By Art Shriver and Tom Whitehead
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012, 152 pp., $36.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Marilyn Richardson
Even today, the word “plantation,” in the context of the Old South, can elicit a visceral wince. Clementine Hunter spent most of her very long life on plantations in Louisiana’s Cane River region. She was born, in either late 1886 or early 1887, on Hidden Hill Plantation, near Cloutierville. Hidden Hill had such a notorious history that it is still rumored to have been the prototype for the setting of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and its original owner, Robert McAlpin, the very model of Simon Legree. Hunter’s parents, Janvier Reuben, called John, and Mary Antoinette, lived at Hidden Hill later, when the Chopin family managed the place. (A few years before Clementine was born, the widowed Kate Chopin, deeply in debt and with six children to support, moved back to her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. There she drew upon her abundant store of material about Creole culture to produce stories, articles, translations, and two novels.)
Clementine, or Clemence, which was possibly her given name, and her six siblings, spoke Creole French at home. She was baptized a Roman Catholic and received her few months of formal education at the hands of an order of nuns. She claimed she preferred working with her sharecropper parents to attending class, and never learned to read or write.
When Clementine (final syllable pronounced “teen”) was about fifteen, the Hunter family moved to nearby Melrose Plantation, the showplace of the Cane River region, known for its fine architecture and exquisite gardens. Melrose was a self-contained community maintained by scores of blacks who lived in brutal poverty, essentially indentured to the owners of the plantation, the Henry family. For the first 35 years that Hunter worked there she performed backbreaking labor year round. She picked cotton for fifty cents per 100 pounds. In the fall she worked in the pecan orchards, gathering the nuts from the ground as others shook them from the trees.
Hunter had two common-law husbands, Charles Dupree, an older man, who died in 1914, and Emmanuel Hunter, who died in 1944. She bore seven children. As was expected, she worked in the fields throughout her pregnancies and returned to work within two or three days of giving birth. Women took their infants with them to the cotton fields, placing them under shade trees or in improvised cradles called brandilliers, hung from tree branches to sway in a passing breeze.
Hunter’s life as a field hand ended when she was around fifty years old. She went to work in the plantation Big House, where she cooked, cleaned, and did washing and ironing for the Henrys and other families. Her husband Emmanuel became ill and was incapacitated for the rest of his life. The Hunters took in Mary Frances LaCour, an eleven year old whose parents could no longer care for her. Some time later, when Hunter began painting in earnest, Mary Frances’s curiosity led her to try her hand as well. The young girl proved to be quite talented, and the two enjoyed painting together and displaying their artwork on a fence near the family cabin. When she was a teenager, Mary Frances went off to California in search of her father. The story made its way back to Melrose that she had become a young mother, and by early 1951 she had died, not yet twenty years old.
During the 1930s, when Hunter began work in the Big House, Melrose Plantation was owned and run by John Henry Jr. and his wife Carmelite, know to all as Cammie. Cammie Henry was interested in historic preservation. She collected art, rare books, and period furniture and compiled more than 250 scrapbooks of local historical ephemera including clippings, photographs, pamphlets, and letters. “Someday,” she wrote in her journal, “someone will hunt history in these very old notices.” She restored and preserved the plantation buildings and, most significantly, in an effort to build on the reputation of nearby Natchitoches as a developing art colony, turned many of the outbuildings into guest cottages, with the intention of inviting artists and writers to come and work there.
Among those who spent time working as Cammie Henry’s guests at Melrose Plantation were the writers Lyle Saxon, Alexander Wolcott, and Rachel Field; the writer and art collector, Anne Parrish; the photographer Doris Ulmann; and most importantly, in terms of Clementine Hunter’s career, the painter Alberta Kinsey. Kinsey made many months-long visits to Melrose, each day setting up her easel and painting numerous plein air scenes of the plants, gardens, and buildings of the plantation and its surroundings. She worked almost exclusively in oils. Kinsey’s use of this medium gave rise to one of the many received, although unexamined, certainties about Clementine Hunter and her painting.
In rural Louisiana, during the 1930s, forties, and beyond, most local whites simply had no capacity to imagine that a black servant, living in a cabin without even basic amenities and caring for her invalid husband, could at the same time—during hours that seemingly could not fit into a single day—turn out painting after painting of original and extraordinary style and design. Hunter’s work was distinctive and unmistakable almost from the start. That start, it was later said, came when, after a few years of serving drinks and meals to various visiting artists, Hunter, having glimpsed Kinsey at work, picked up, unseen, a few of her discarded tubes of oil paint, took them home and, using who knows what for a brush, began to make elaborate paintings with the few remaining bits of color she could extract from the parsimonious Kinsey’s well-squeezed tubes.
It does seem to be the case that, early on, Hunter had so little paint to work with that she thinned it with turpentine—to the extent that, working on paper as she did, many of her early paintings were mistaken for watercolors. Nonetheless, its unlikely that fortuitous bottles of turpentine were left about along with the depleted tubes of paint. Instead, it’s pretty clear that Hunter and Kinsey discussed painting. The writer John Ed Bradley, who collected Kinsey’s work and was an expert on her life and career, observed that Kinsey “would have felt a kinship with Clementine Hunter. Alberta was plain and unpretentious. They had more in common than Alberta had with other visitors to Melrose.” Francois Mignon, who for many years was manager of the plantation, wrote to a friend that Clemence, as he preferred to call Hunter, passed by [Alberta Kinsey’s] house the other day. Miss A. grabbed her off, took her to the shop, and asked her to examine an impressionist painting she was doing. She asked Clemence where she would place the various colors, and lo! According to Miss A., Clemence indicated just the proper points, which greatly impressed Miss Alberta, and brought forth the observation from the Madam [Cammie Henry] that Clemence was smarter than most people gave her credit.
An early work, done primarily in shades of green and brown, and showing the characteristic pale quality of oil paint much diluted with turpentine, depicts a figure, identified as Hunter’s husband Emmanuel, seated outside a cabin and wrapped in a sheet or blanket that covers his shoulders and falls over the side of his chair to his feet. A woman wearing a sunbonnet so large that it envelops her entire head, bends toward him with an arm outstretched to offer medicine or perhaps to adjust his clothing. The outline of the woman’s body includes the articulated ovals and triangles Kinsey, who earned her living teaching art classes, would assign beginning students as an exercise in sketching the human form.
As Shriver and Whitehead point out, Hunter and other self-taught, so-called outsider or primitive artists—especially those who are not white—are generally written about in ways that emphasize their lack of instruction. Their ability supposedly springs full blown from some bizarre compulsion, spiritual conviction, or other source that lacks an intellectual dimension, thereby keeping them from inclusion in the traditional artistic canon. Consider the ultimate reception of Le Douanier Henri Rousseau or, in this country, of “Grandma” Anna Mary Moses, whose work now sells in the million-dollar range, in contrast to Hunter, whose work sells from around $5,000 to occasionally more than $50,000—the difference, in the market place, between folk artists and outsider, “primitive” painters. One goal of this book is to establish Hunter in the line of American folk artists, removing the complication of mystical intervention from the interpretation of her work. A worthy goal, but given the characters who were supposedly her early champions, not an easy one to achieve.
Many of these people claimed to know Hunter well, which, in the South, during the years she was painting, was not the same as being a friend of hers. To most white southerners, she was synonymous with her household duties at Melrose. It makes sense, therefore, that the man who called himself Francois Mignon, who was from New York City rather than the South, would take a second and a third look at her paintings, especially some of her spectacular pots of zinnias, with their sophisticated color experiments and thick, confident impasto. Or her vivid scenes of plantation life over the years, with the talismanic images she repeatedly incorporated into them: hovering birds; the great dark circle of a washing cauldron on iron legs, with a fire beneath it; the processional formality of funerals; the startling mandala that recurs in her boisterous scenes at the local honky-tonk and turns out to be her interpretation of the spinning ceiling fan. She frequently inserts herself, sitting discreetly off to the side, painting the very scene the viewer is contemplating.
Hunter made religious paintings and was fond of flights of stylized angels moving across the sky, their hair blown back in conical shapes. But her work was generally grounded in the literal. Her iconography was closer to interpretations of the Catholic and Protestant religious imagery of prayer cards, pamphlets, and the cardboard fans used at long Sunday services, than to the ecstatic visions of Howard Finster (1916-2001) of Georgia, or Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980) of New Orleans, both of whom famously heard the voice of God calling them to paint as a form of ministry. While there is very little of Hunter’s voice in this book, it does quote a particularly moving conversation between Hunter and the historian Mildred Bailey from the mid-1970s. “Frenchie,” Hunter told her of her oldest son, who had been living for years in California, “is coming home to die.” Hunter nursed him through his final illness. A few weeks after his funeral, Hunter showed Bailey a painting of a cemetery, a church, an angel, and a figure rising from a grave toward what Bailey described as “a little hole up in the sky.” Hunter said, “That is where Frenchie is going to get through to go to heaven.”
In the late 1930s, Mignon and a writer of modest success named James Pipes Register, conspired to “discover” and promote Hunter’s work. Lottie and Dora, as the pair called each other, generally referred to Hunter in their correspondence as Cinderella. They set out to get her work widely noticed, and managed to arrange for a few small exhibitions, including one at a gallery in Louisiana that did not admit blacks. Hunter was allowed to see her work framed and displayed there only once, on a day when the gallery was closed.
In a particularly shady move, the two attempted to convince the Julius Rosenwald Fund to award Hunter a sizeable grant. They were not successful, but a sympathetic member of the Rosenwald board arranged for a modest donation of a few hundred dollars as a token of support. Convinced by her patrons that they would handle the money for her, Hunter saw little of it. At the same time, in promoting Hunter’s work, Register and Mignon described her as the recipient of a Rosenwald grant.
Over the decades, Clementine Hunter’s paintings brought hundreds of thousands of dollars to dealers, collectors, and galleries; hardly any of the money went to the artist herself. In her later years, she managed to buy a trailer home and a small car, which she could not drive. She died in 1988 at the age of 101 and is buried a few miles from Melrose Plantation. (I still regret not driving out to visit her and buy a couple of paintings when I was teaching in New Orleans for a summer, way back when.)
Shriver and Whitehead have compiled a respectable amount of information about Hunter and her career. The two appear to have divided up the writing of chapters, so there is some redundancy. The illustrations are quite good and stand in for any real discussion of Hunter’s aesthetic concerns. What’s missing, though is a multidimensional portrait of the artist through the eyes and voices of family, descendents of neighbors, church folk, and others—stories, anecdotes, and insights from people who really knew and cared about her and did not look at her and see only dollar signs.
Marilyn Richardson writes about African American art and intellectual history.