When asked about her work, Clementine Hunter said: “I tell my stories by marking pictures. The people who lived around here and made the history of this land are remembered by my paintings. I like that. I’m glad the young people of today can look at my paintings and see how easy and uncomplicated things were when we lived off the land. I wanted to tell them. I paint the history of my people. The things that happened to me and to the ones I know.”
Born on Hidden Hill Plantation in rural Louisiana, Hunter spent the majority of her life as a resident laborer and domestic worker on the neighboring Melrose Plantation. Melrose’s owner, Carmelite “Cammie” Henry, an avid patron, fostered an informal art colony on the property, frequently hosting various authors, poets, and artists. Regular interaction with this creative community inspired Hunter to pick up a paintbrush in her fifties. Hunter’s artistic origins are shrouded in myth, but her friend and advocate, Francois Mignon, recounted a moment when Hunter found discarded paint tubes, and with his assistance, gathered an old window shade, brushes, and turpentine. The following morning Hunter completed a painting. 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.
Through Mignon’s support, Hunter steadily achieved critical recognition for her depictions of the Southern African American experience. A 1953 article in Look magazine, illustrated with a photograph (taken by Clarence John Laughlin) of the artist in her cabin, surrounded by paintings, drew national attention. Three years later, 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. Segregation laws at the time prohibited Hunter from entering the exhibition space until after hours, when white visitors had vacated the premises.
Painted from memory, Cane River Baptism fuses Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions during a sacramental rite that would have been both familiar and meaningful to the artist. Here, Hunter compresses time and space, organizing the ceremonial procession into three horizontal sequences, or registers, with each figure or object firmly resting on a ground line. At once visual storyteller and vernacular historian, Hunter illuminates the complex racial and religious diversity of her homeland.