Possibly Louisiana’s most famous artist, Clementine Hunter was born in 1886 at Hidden Hill Plantation and spent most of her life at nearby Melrose Plantation in the Cane River region in Louisiana owned by John and Carmelite (“Miss Cammie”) Henry She worked as a field hand and was proud she could pick 250 pounds a day (a single cotton boll weighs about 0.15 oz). She bore seven children and on the morning before giving birth to one of them, picked 78 pounds of cotton.
In middle age, Miss Cammie brought Clementine into the Big House to cook and clean. There she met Alberta Kinsey, a New Orleans artist who inspired Clementine to paint. In her words, ”
“..in the 1930s Alberta Kinsey came here…to paint and I had to
clean up her room. She gave me some old tubes of paint to throw in the trash, but I didn’t pay her no mind. I kept them and tried marking up some pictures in my cabin.”
Hunter painted what she knew; plantation life in the early 20th century. Although records were not kept, she may have produced as many as 10,000 works on canvas, bottles, boards, jugs, spittoons, lampshades and whatever else captured her fancy. She also produced quilts, pottery and needlepoint. Many were originally sold for a few dollars or less. Neither she nor any of her children ever owned any of her paintings – she either sold them or gave them away.
Clementine Hunter achieved significant recognition during her lifetime, including a letter from President Ronald Reagan and an invitation to the White House from U.S. President Jimmy Carter (which she declined). She was the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art) . Radcliffe College included her in its “Black Women Oral History Project (1980). Northwestern State University of Louisiana granted her an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1986 and Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards designated her a state honor. One of the more well-known displays of Hunter’s artwork is located in African House at Melrose Plantation.
Clementine Hunter died on January 1, 1988 at the age of 101, outliving most of her children. She never learned to read or write and taught herself to paint.