Dubbed “the black Grandma Moses” by art critics, Clementine Reuben Hunter spent the last fifty years of her long life painting everyday activities on the Louisiana plantation she called home. Her subjects range from menial domestic tasks, such as doing laundry and soothing an infant, to special events, including baptisms and weddings. “I paint the history of my people,” she said. “My paintings tell how we worked, played, and prayed.” Hunter painted on whatever material was available to her, which varied from scrap wood, window shades, and paper bags to milk jugs and soap boxes. Her naïve painting style has at times attracted derision from some viewers. But those critics are outnumbered by others who appreciate the charm, character, and primitive beauty of Hunter’s images. Since the 1980s, Hunter’s work has become increasingly valuable and can be found in the collections of the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, American Folk Art Museum, High Museum of Art, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and Morris Museum of Art, among others.
Born Clemence Reuben, the artist spent her childhood on Hidden Hill Plantation near Natchitoches, Louisiana, a place so isolated and harsh that, according to local legend, it inspired the setting for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Creole French-speaking granddaughter of former slaves, she did not attend school long enough to be literate, but instead tended the cotton fields alongside her parents. As a teenager, Hunter moved with her family to Melrose Plantation in the Cane River area where she was known as Clementine. She would live there for her remaining eighty-six years, marrying and raising five children. Hunter’s introduction to the arts occurred in 1924, when as a member of the plantation household staff, she discovered that Melrose’s mistress, Carmelita Garritt “Miss Cammie” Henry, opened her home to itinerant artists and authors. Invigorated by this creative atmosphere, Hunter began creating quilts, baskets, and, eventually, paintings – or as she referred to it, “marking some pictures.” Though she did not regularly title her more than five thousand works, when asked for one, she offered colorfully descriptive appellations, such as Trying to Keep the Baby Happy or She’s Not Pretty But She’s Strong. Both her life and her work were profoundly influenced by her Creole heritage and Catholic faith.
Hunter created her first painting, Bowl of Zinnias, at Melrose Plantation in 1939. Before long, Melrose’s artists-in-residence—including Alberta Kinsey, James Register, and, most significantly, Francois Mignon—began championing her work. Mignon encouraged her transition to oil paints, while Register helped her acquire the Julius Rosenfeld Grant in 1944. Five years later, several of Hunter’s patrons arranged for her work to be displayed at the New Orleans Arts and Crafts Show. Intrigued by Hunter’s story, surrealist photographer and fellow Louisianan Clarence John Laughlin, who was at the time working for the Library of Congress to create a pictorial history of Louisiana architecture, photographed Hunter in her cabin surrounded by her paintings. The photograph and accompanying article were published in Look magazine in 1953, bringing Hunter national attention. Three years later, in 1956, the Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art) organized a solo exhibition for Hunter, marking the first time such an honor was accorded an African American artist by a Louisiana museum. Unfortunately, segregation laws at the time prohibited Hunter from entering the exhibition space until after hours, when white visitors had vacated the premises.
Though she began painting later in her life, Hunter witnessed numerous exhibitions of her work and lived to see the value of her efforts. The paintings she sold for a dime in the 1940s to offset the expense of her husband’s medical care were, by the 1980s, selling for thousands of dollars at international auction houses. In 1986, Hunter received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Northwestern State University of Louisiana. Before her death in 1988, her work had appeared in numerous publications, including Ebony and the Saturday Evening Post, and had been exhibited across America in prestigious establishments, such as the Smithsonian Institution.