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Clementine Hunter (c. 1887–1988) was born at Hidden Hill plantation near Cloutierville in northwest Louisiana. A descendant of former enslaved people, her father was part Irish and Native American. Hunter considered herself Creole, speaking French as her only language until adulthood. When Hunter was fifteen years old, she moved to Melrose plantation, where she worked as a field hand before becoming a cook and domestic servant in the main house. She first lived in a small cottage and later in a nearby trailer, which she was able to purchase with proceeds from her art.
Cammie Henry owned Melrose Plantation where she invited artists and writers, forming an art colony while Hunter resided there. Hunter’s career as an artist began when she was fifty years old in the 1940s, after she had been married twice and given birth to seven children. Reputedly, she began painting with brushes and tubes of paint left behind at Melrose by French Quarter artist Alberta Kinsey. Architect and historian Francois Mignon, who resided at Melrose, encouraged Hunter to create art. Hunter sold her early works for 25 or 50 cents each. Within a decade, her renown had spread. In 1949, she displayed works at the New Orleans Arts and Crafts show; in 1953, her work was profiled in LOOK magazine alongside the work of other folk artists. Hunter was the first African American artist to present a solo exhibition at the Delgado Museum, now the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Hunter’s work often depicts biblical themes or scenes from her life on the plantation, most often at Melrose. Painting with simplicity, directness, and humor, Hunter was sometimes called the “Black Grandma Moses.” A prolific artist, she produced more than 5,000 paintings, ranging from small postcard-size works to the murals at Melrose’s African House. She also created illustrations for the book The Joyous Coast by James Register, who helped publicize and influence her works.
Clementine Hunter, Baptism, c. 1960s. Oil on board, 18 x 24 inches. In Memory of Dr. Gerri Curry. Louisiana Art & Science Museum Collection, 2007.001.001
The New Orleans Museum of Art honored Hunter with a solo exhibition in 1955, just fourteen years after Elizabeth Catlett and her students had to visit the museum on a day when it was not open to the public because the museum did not admit African Americans at that time.
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