Shore Excursion: Self-Taught Painter Records Louisiana Plantation Life

Daughter of sharecroppers, Clementine Hunter couldn’t read or write. Her life may have passed by without leaving any footnote in history.

But in her mid-50s, Clementine found some discarded paints and paint brushes left behind by an artist at Melrose Plantation. Taking the art supplies to her four-room plantation cabin, the long-time kitchen worker decided to try her hand at painting.

Using an old window blind for canvas, Clementine began to paint a river baptism scene. When it was finished, she looked around for more projects she could paint to create a diary of her daily life at Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, about two-and-a-half-hour drive from riverboat cruise stop in Natchez, Mississippi.

Wash Day painting by Clementine Hunter

“She started painting on any flat surfaces she could find – cardboard, wood, metal, bottles, gourds, milk jugs, whatever,” says Melrose Plantation tour guide Jim Kilcoyne. “It’s estimated she painted more than 7,000 works of art in her life.”

During the day, Clementine would work in the plantation kitchen. “At night, she would paint beside a kerosene lamp in her cabin at Melrose Plantation, creating what she called ‘markings’ – not paintings – to make a unique record of plantation life as she lived it in the South,” Jim says.

By the time she died, Clementine had become the first Black artist to have a solo show at the New Orleans Museum of Art. She also had received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Northwestern State University of Louisiana, been invited to meet President Jimmy Carter at the White House (she declined because she never ventured outside Louisiana) and had her work displayed in numerous museums.

She also was honored by having the Louisiana Legislature proclaim Oct. 1 as Clementine Hunter Day in Louisiana in 2019.

Clementine’s Art Displayed at Melrose Plantation

Although much of Clementine’s art is in the hands of private collectors and art museums, visitors can see some of her masterpieces at Melrose Plantation. One of her most popular works is a large nine-panel creation displayed on the upstairs walls of the plantation’s African House.

Clementine Hunter

“The panels showcase the lives of Cane River inhabitants,” Jim says. “You can see wash day when women would wash clothes in big iron pots and hang them out on a clothesline to dry. You can see people picking cotton, people at a river baptism, the shooting by some men in a bar.”

Using bright colors and upsizing some of the people and objects in her unique painting style, Clementine’s artwork conveyed how she felt about people and things in her community.

“Being painted bigger meant being more important,” Jim says, pointing out a large man ringing a church bell in one of Clementine’s paintings at African House. “That is her husband so, of course, he was important to her.”

Cane River Baptism by Clementine Hunter

When someone once questioned Clementine why one of her paintings depicted a giant chicken pulling a cart, she answered, “If the chicken wasn’t big, it wouldn’t be able to pull it.”

  Birthdate Unknown

Clementine was born in late December 1886 or early January 1887 at Louisiana’s Hidden Hill Plantation, a harsh place considered to be the inspiration for the 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

All Clementine knew was that her birth was sometime around Christmas 1886. Her parents were Creole farm workers. Her grandparents had been enslaved.

When she was a teenager, the family moved to nearby Melrose Plantation in 1902 where Clementine picked cotton. Clementine learned to pick cotton at age eight at Hidden Hill and as an adult could pick 200 pounds a day. Sharecropper families such as Clementine’s earned most of their sparse income from cotton.

At Melrose, Clementine worked her way up from cotton picker to housekeeper and cook. When she was about 20, Clementine gave birth to her first child, a boy named Joseph Dupree. His father was Charles Dupree. Their second child, Cora, was born a few years later. Charles and Clementine never married and he died in 1914.

In 1924, Clementine married a Creole woodchopper at Melrose named Emmanuel Hunter. “The couple had five children, although two were stillborn,” Jim says.

Clementine Hunter’s cabin at Melrose Plantation

After the death of Melrose Plantation owner John H. Henry, his widow Carmelite “Cammie” began hosting writers and artists such as Rachel Field, Lyle Saxon and Richard Avedon.

William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell were said to have been guests at the artist colony but no official record lists them. The only stipulation was that guests had to work at their art or leave. Melrose was not intended to be a free vacation for artists and writers.

  Becoming an Artist

 Then came that life-changing day when Clementine found art supplies left by a guest artist and became a prolific painter of life at Melrose, her entire world. When her husband died in 1944, Clementine became the sole financial provider for her family.

At the same time, a man named Francois Mignon, who was a guest and friend of Cammie’s, saw Clementine’s work and encouraged her to paint and to market what she created. Francois also taught Clementine how to draw the letters for her first and last name. Unable to spell her name, Clementine decided to reverse the C and H out of respect for plantation owner Cammie Henry who had the same initials.

It was Francois’ idea for Clementine to paint the huge murals in African House when she was 68 years old. But Clementine decided she was not going to work for free. The 8-foot-long, 4-foot-high plywood panels would be a big job and she should be paid for her efforts. Francois helped find donors to fund the panels.

Tour guide Jim Kilcoyne discusses Clementine Hunter’s paintings in the African House.

“Painting is a lot harder than pickin’ cotton,” Clementine once said. “Cotton’s right there for you to pull off the stalk, but to paint, you got to sweat your mind.”

Painting People She Knew

Clementine often painted Melrose personalities into her artworks. The depiction of the river baptism at African House is a fun example. A woman named Dorsey is the mother of teenage daughters being baptized in Clementine’s mural. But Dorsey grew a bit jealous of all the attention being paid to her daughters on the day of their baptism.

African House at Melrose Plantation

“Dorsey suddenly jumped into the water making out as how she had gotten religious fervor,” Jim says, pointing out a woman splashing about in the river.

But when someone called out to Dorsey to look out for a big water moccasin, the over-acting woman quickly lost her religion and crawled straight out on the bank.

Clementine’s talents began attracting buyers and visitors but she never got rich in her lifetime. Although she began selling her works for $1 or less, today Clementine’s pieces bring top prices.

In January 2020, Christie’s auction house sold Clementine’s 1981 painting “Melrose Complex #2” for $21,250. However, her auction record currently stands at $70,150 for “The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men” sold in 2018 to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Back then, the extra money barely helped her scrape by. When admirers began stopping by her cabin, Clementine hung a sign on her door “50¢ To Look.” A sign with that notice is still hanging at her Melrose Plantation home.

Clementine Hunter with the sign she posted on her cabin

 Strange Story of Francois Mignon

Without Francois, would Clementine have found success as an artist? And just who was this eccentric man who championed Clementine and had such a strong influence on Clementine’s future and legacy?

“He came to Melrose Plantation as a writer,” Jim says. “And he did write but his name wasn’t Francois Mignon and he wasn’t French and he wasn’t from Paris.”

Born in New York on May 9, 1899, his name was Frank VerNooy Mineah. He arrived at Melrose Plantation for a six-week visit in the early 1940s and stayed for 32 years.

Becoming the plantation historian, Francois wrote thousands of pages of journal entries detailing life at Melrose Plantation. Despite his romanticized stories, Francois is credited with the protection and preservation of Melrose which is now owned as a house museum by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches.

Melrose Plantation

Francois died July 22, 1980, aged 81, and is buried in a mausoleum behind St. Augustine Catholic Church, across Cane River from Melrose Plantation.

Clementine’s grave

Clementine died Jan. 1, 1988, aged 101, and is buried next to her friend and mentor Francois, just as the two had planned.

Clementine and Francois are buried side by side

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

For more information: Contact Melrose Plantation at (318) 379-0055, www.melroseplantation.org or the Natchitoches Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 259-1714, www.natchitoches.com

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