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Hunter, Clementine - VM - James Romaine

Clementine Hunter: Picking Cotton

“God put these pictures in my head.”

James Romaine

The self-taught African American artist Clementine Hunter died in 1988 at the age of 101. She lived almost her entire life on the Melrose Plantation along the Cane River in rural Louisiana. Although she did not begin painting until she was in her 50s, Hunter may have created as many as ten thousand works of art.

Many of her paintings, such as Picking Cotton, visualize scenes of life and labor in a pre-industrial South. She said, “I tell my stories by making pictures… I paint the story of my people. The things that happened to me and the ones I know. My paintings tell how we worked, played, and prayed.”

Hunter only briefly attended school and had no formal artistic training. She said, “I never learned to read or write because I didn’t go to school. I guess that’s the way the good Lord wanted it. Instead of reading and writing, He gave me the know how to paint.”

Since Hunter had no academic training in art, we might be tempted to regard her work as naïve or unsophisticated. In fact, Hunter’s paintings are conceptually complex and visually resonant. They are exceptional for their visual directness and their representation of narrative through compositional structure and a meticulous sense of color. In Picking Cotton, Hunter visualized the movement of the workers through her application of material in quick brush strokes of thick paint.

Because Hunter’s paintings are depictive, we might expect them also to be pictorial. But this is not the case. Hunter never employed perspective and she didn’t design her paintings to be read from left to right. Her aesthetic was, in part, rooted in a tradition of quilting. This quilt-influenced visual structure, as evidenced in Picking Cotton, was characterized by a rhythm of forms. Sometimes this repetition is elaborated by slight variances.

Hunter was a devout Christian and her art was an expression of her relationship with God. In Baptism in the Cane River Hunter visualized how the church and the sacred rituals of Christianity, sustained the spiritual life of her community. This white building, with its prominent pier, is St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church. Hunter is buried in this church’s cemetery yard.

This painting of baptism also evidences the relationship between Hunter’s spiritual life and her sense of artistic purpose. She told another interviewer, “God put those pictures in my head and I put them on canvas, like he wants me to.” By describing her art as a gift from God, Hunter wasn’t suggesting that she had supernatural visions. Rather she was articulating a divinely-ordained sense of artistic vocation. This painting of baptism affirms the centrality of faith to Hunter’s life and that of her community.

Many of Hunter’s paintings are visual extensions of an oral story-telling tradition. In Nativity with the Virgin Mary, Angels, and Wisemen, she made the biblical story of the magi’s visit part of the story of her own life and locale.

At the left, an angel guides an already pregnant Mary toward a house. Mary wears a vibrant blue dress. Although blue is a color traditionally used to depict the Virgin mother, we can only guess how Hunter, who had virtually no knowledge of art history, made this color choice on her own.

Above the house is a star, which is also a cross. This star is a spiritual beacon for the three wisemen who enter the picture from the right. As gifts, the wisemen bring a cake, a box of chocolates, and a pineapple! The wisemen’s contemporary clothing and their unusual gifts evidence how Hunter creatively interpreted the Bible.

This entire sacred drama is observed by angels. The flying angels sport the cone shaped hairdos that were Hunter’s signature details. The artist explained, “If you were up there flying around in the sky, with all the wind, your hair would be messed up too.” (We might also notice that the hair of the angel walking next to Mary, perhaps the angel Gabriel, falls naturally over their shoulders.)

Hunter’s statement seems to imply that she regarded her paintings as completely naturalistic. For Hunter these angels, and the biblical narratives they accompany, were not fabrications of fantasy. She depicted her motifs as she saw them. As if she had personally witnessed the arrival of the wisemen, when the star guided them to her rural Louisiana home.

Her innovative representation of biblical narratives evidences how Hunter’s self-taught imagination was nourished by her connection to where she lived. Hunter repeatedly refused opportunities to travel, including an invitation to the White House. She was the opposite of the restless wanderer. Knowing and loving her own place so well, she was able to imagine the biblical narratives as local events.

Because the originality of Clementine Hunter’s vision was spiritually grounded in her daily life, her art evidences a seamless harmony between the sacred and the ordinary. Her unconventional approach to both motif and method refreshes our own imagination.

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Clementine Hunter: Picking Cotton, c. 1969, oil on board, 44.4 x 59.6 cm.

Clementine Hunter: Baptizing in Cane River, 1974, oil on canvas board, 18 x 24 in.

Clementine Hunter: Nativity Scene with Angels, Virgin Mary, and the Three Wise Men, oil on artist's board, 45.7 x 61.0 cm.

Clementine Hunter (American, 1886-1988) moved in 1900 with her family to the Melrose Plantation on the Cane River, outside Natchitoches, Louisiana. Melrose soon became a haven for many artists and writers including Alberta Kinsey, Francois Mignon, and Lyle Saxon. At the age of 54, Clementine Hunter was encouraged by visiting artists to try painting artworks. She used leftover paints and began "marking pictures" on any surface she could find – old bottles, cardboard scraps, and even brown paper bags. Her works told the story of plantation life from daily activities to special occasions. One of Louisiana's most celebrated folk artists, Clementine Hunter's paintings can be seen in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the Oprah Winfrey Collection in Chicago, and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

James Romaine is Professor of art history at Lander University in Greenwood, SC, USA. He is the co-founder of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA). His publications include Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art (Penn State University Press, 2018) and a chapter in Kunst D.V. – (Neo)calvinistische perspectieven op esthetica, kunstgeschiedenis en kunsttheologie. His videos can be seen on YouTube at SeeingArtHistory.

ArtWay Visual Meditation Advent 3, 2021