From left Clementine Hunter on the front porch of her home at Melrose, Louisiana, circa 1975. Photograph by Thomas Whitehead. Detail from Clementine Hunter (1887-1988), Sunday on Cane River,

Clementine Hunter: ‘Success was about direct encounters with the people who admired her art’

The Louisiana artist never learnt to read or write, and only taught herself to paint in middle age. Yet the former cotton-picker’s ‘way of understanding her world’ won her admirers ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Joan Rivers 

In 1955 an illiterate former farm labourer, Clementine Hunter, became the first black artist to have a solo show at the New Orleans Museum of Art. By the time of her death in 1988, she had received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree, been invited to Washington, D.C., by president Jimmy Carter and become a household name in her home state — where 1 October is now ‘Clementine Hunter Day’.

Remarkably, Hunter had only taught herself to paint when she was in her mid-fifties.

‘Her life was anything but easy,’ says Cara Zimmerman, specialist in Outsider Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘But for Hunter, painting became her way of understanding her world.’

‘What people love about Hunter is her simple desire to create. She didn’t start off thinking, “I’m going to make a career for myself doing this.”’ — specialist Cara Zimmerman

Hunter was born in 1887 on Louisiana’s notorious Hidden Hill Plantation, the harsh conditions of which were said to have been the inspiration for the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (published in 1852). Her parents were Creole farmhands, and her grandparents had been slaves.

Aged 15, having received fewer than 10 days’ schooling, she moved to the nearby Melrose Plantation, working her way up from cotton-picking to the position of housekeeper and cook — although the few cents she earned each day could only be spent at the plantation’s store.

By contrast to the dire Hidden Hill, Melrose was relatively liberal. The estate’s owner was a wealthy and educated woman named Cammie Henry who turned the house into a retreat for white artists.

Clementine Hunter (1887-1988), Sunday on Cane River, Louisiana, 1955. Oil on plywood. 32¾ x 59¼ in (83.1 x 150 cm). Estimate $12,000-18,000. Offered in Outsider and Vernacular Art on 21 January 2021 at Christie’s in New York
Clementine Hunter (1887-1988), Sunday on Cane River, Louisiana, 1955. Oil on plywood. 32¾ x 59¼ in (83.1 x 150 cm). Estimate: $12,000-18,000. Offered in Outsider and Vernacular Art on 21 January 2021 at Christie’s in New York

In 1939 an artist by the name of Alberta Kinsey left behind a set of paints and brushes, which Hunter uncovered while cleaning. Using an old window shutter as her canvas, she began to mark out the shapes of a river baptism scene.

Hunter was soon working with everything she could find — wine bottles, gourds, cardboard boxes, and the tube-ends of pigment thinned with turpentine — and painted nostalgic memories of farm work and religious ceremonies on the banks of the Cane River. She developed a colourful style that favoured surrealism over perspective. When asked why she painted a giant chicken pulling a cart, she quipped: ‘If the chicken wasn’t big, it wouldn’t be able to pull it.’

Unable to spell her name, Hunter signed her works with a backwards C and H monogram and began selling them for less than a dollar. A sign on her studio door read: ‘Clementine Hunter, Artist. 50 cents a look.’ To make a little extra, she also sold visitors homemade popsicles.

Clementine Hunter (1887-1988), Baptizing on Cane River, 1974. Oil on canvas board. 18 x 24 in (45.1 x 60.1 cm). Estimate $4,000-6,000. Offered in Outsider and Vernacular Art on 21 January 2021 at Christie’s in New York
Clementine Hunter (1887-1988), Baptizing on Cane River, 1974. Oil on canvas board. 18 x 24 in (45.1 x 60.1 cm). Estimate: $4,000-6,000. Offered in Outsider and Vernacular Art on 21 January 2021 at Christie’s in New York

‘Hunter enjoyed selling her works directly to the collectors who made pilgrimages to meet her,’ says Zimmerman. ‘For her, success wasn’t about glossy galleries, but direct encounters with the people who admired and appreciated her art.’

Clementine Hunter (1887-1988), The Cotton Gin, 1965. Oil on paper board. 15½ x 23½ in (39.4 x 59.7 cm). Estimate $4,000-6,000. Offered in Outsider and Vernacular Art on 21 January 2021 at Christie’s in New York
Clementine Hunter (1887-1988), The Cotton Gin, 1965. Oil on paper board. 15½ x 23½ in (39.4 x 59.7 cm). Estimate: $4,000-6,000. Offered in Outsider and Vernacular Art on 21 January 2021 at Christie’s in New York

Hunter produced some 5,000 works during the second half of her life, working at night beside a kerosene lamp in her four-roomed, tin-roofed tenant cabin, which is now listed on America’s register of Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios. Her masterpiece, a nine-panel domestic cycle on the walls of the Melrose Plantation’s African House — a kind of Sistine Chapel of folk art — can be seen on Google Street View.

‘You can physically trace her evolution through her works,’ Zimmerman says. ‘As she started to make a little money, she applied paint more generously and used more vibrant colours. As she received more recognition, her signature became more stylised.’

In January 2020 Christie’s sold Hunter’s 1981 painting Melrose Complex #2, below, for $21,250 — more than four times its low estimate. Her auction record, however, currently stands at $70,150 for The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men, featuring black farm workers — the price paid in 2018 by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Clementine Hunter (1887-1988) Melrose Complex #2, 1981. Oil on board. 15 x 30 in (38.1 x 76.2 cm). Sold for $21,250 on 17 January 2020 at Christie’s in New York
Clementine Hunter (1887-1988) Melrose Complex #2, 1981. Oil on board. 15 x 30 in (38.1 x 76.2 cm). Sold for $21,250 on 17 January 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Hunter’s works can also be found in the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, both in Washington, D.C., the High Museum of Art in Georgia and the American Folk Art Museum in New York. They have also been shown at LACMA and the Louvre.

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Her collectors are said to include Oprah Winfrey and the late Joan Rivers, who acquired her first Hunter work from the 101-year-old artist in exchange for $35 and a meat pie. In 2006, Rivers told the The New York Times  that she simply ‘couldn’t stop herself’ from buying more of Hunter’s paintings to hang between the gilded columns of her Fifth Avenue duplex.

‘What people love about Hunter,’ says Zimmerman, ‘is her simple desire to create. She didn’t start off thinking, “I’m going to make a career for myself doing this.” It was just her unadulterated way of making sense of her existence.’