“God puts these pictures in my head and I just put them on the canvas like he wants me to” •• Clementine Hunter ••
Outsider art is a term that has always bugged me a little. It has always struck me as arrogant, as if to say that one way of creating art is “correct” and everything else is not. There seems to be a touch of condescension in the way a lot of people use it, even those who claim to be great lovers of work labeled in such a way. But I’ve grown to appreciate the distinction between those who have gone through rigorous training and those whose work is raw and filled with unrestrained emotion.
There is so much to love about the art of Clementine Hunter and about the artist herself. Idole, her maternal grandmother, had been a slave, and her other grandparents included an “Irishman” and an “Indian lady.” Born in the heart of Cane River area, Clementine was quintessentially Creole and her diverse heritage must have influenced how she saw the world around her. She never learned to read or write and Clementine spent much of her life picking cotton at Melrose Plantation, a Louisiana plantation that had been built by a free black family in 1832.
Clementine Hunter started painting in her 50s after some paints and brushes were left at the plantation by a visiting artist. She was respected and supported in her own time, although she never made money with her art, selling pieces for as little as 25¢ when she started. She lived her life in a small cabin, which served as her studio and gallery. The cabin can now be visited on the grounds of Melrose Plantation, where her art also adorns the interior walls of “African House,” a food storage building on the plantation.
The art itself is reminiscent of the story quilt, and it seems safe to say that Clementine Hunter would have been influenced by women who expressed themselves through quilting. She spent all of her life in the Cane River area, her work depicting the scenes of her community: funerals, weddings, workers picking cotton, zinnias, etc. The art says something about the area and about the way Hunter observed it. It is joyous and optimistic, while still being true to the experience of life in Louisiana at the turn of the twentieth century.
Late in Clementine’s life, she had gained the recognition she deserved; she increased her prices over time from 25¢ to thousands of dollars. Joan Rivers met her when Hunter was 101, a year before her death, and purchased her first Clementine Hunter painting. She would eventually own six, all starkly out of place in Rivers’ English Formal apartment in New York.
I love the colors in these paintings. Clementine Hunter’s world was vibrant and exciting, and the world is a richer place because she was inspired to chronicle the life of her community.
Art From Her Heart (a picture book about Clementine Hunter)
Clementine Hunter: American Folk Artist (a book of work by the artist)
Clementine Hunter: Her Life and Art (a biography)
The Original Clementine Hunter Collection (a selection of work available on ceramic dinnerware)
Clementine Hunter’s works can be viewed in the Smithsonian Institute, the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, and many other museums across the country.