Saturday, November 24, 2012

Memory Paintings

She is often referred to as the black Grandma Moses, but the ‘Americana’ of Louisiana folk artist Clementine Hunter is a strong reflection of African influences with its use of bold color, pattern, stylized imagery, and stacked perspective. The artist called her works memory paintings because they depict scenes of everyday life around the plantation and her church. Asked the title of a painting she would describe instead what it was about, rarely thinking in terms of a name. The titles we see given to her paintings were most often applied by her white patrons.

Clementine Hunter (she pronounced it Clementeen) was born in 1886 on a cotton plantation near Cloutierville, Louisiana. At the age of five her family moved to another plantation in the Cane River area of Natchitoches Parish, where she first attended school. Clementine never liked school, often failing to attend until her parents gave up on sending her. When she was fourteen the family moved again, this time to Melrose Plantation, another Cane River plantation dating from the late 1700s. The owners of Melrose hoped to preserve the arts and crafts of the Cane River area, and as a result the plantation became over the years a haven for artists and writers. Clementine and her family worked in the cotton fields and the pecan groves, but when she reached the age of forty-two Clementine moved from field work to house work.

Gone Fishing, 1950s; a day on Cane River with everybody fishing in their Sunday best.

Several years later a man named Francois Mignon joined the Melrose family as a literary assistant to the owner. He recognized the creativity of Clementine, offering daily encouragement. When a New Orleans artist visited the plantation to paint magnolias, she left behind several tubes of paint. Finding the paints, Clementine approached Mignon saying she could “mark” a picture of her own, and he gave her an old window shade, some brushes and turpentine. The very next morning, she brought him a picture. In the years following, she painted whenever she had time, on anything she could find—from cardboard boxes, brown paper bags, lumber, to plastic milk cartons and wine bottles. 

Cotton Crucifixion, 1970; oil on paper

Over the next forty plus years she produced 4000 paintings, each one telling in a simple, straightforward way a story of life as she saw it. Though illiterate, her paintings are a storybook of everyday life on and around the plantation. The artist died on New Year’s Day, 1988 and was buried near Melrose Plantation in a spot close to Francois Mignon, the man who believed so strongly in her talent.

Zinnias in a Pot, 1965; return to a favorite theme first seen in 1939

Milking Time, 1940s; asked why the cow had only three legs, the artist reasoned that the milking stool only needed three legs, so the cow only needed three legs.

The painting at the top is a large mural titled Baptism, done in 1955 and now in African House on the grounds of Melrose Plantation.


  1. I appreciate the history of this Louisiana artist. I have heard of Grandma Moses, but never knew much about her or or works. Thanks for an interesting post.

  2. Those colors would really brighten up a room, especially in winter. Speaking of Louisiana (we were, weren't we?) on the Documentary channel last night,(right after the Moonshiners), was 'King Crawfish'. Fascinating.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America