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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Funeral Procession by Clementine Hunter; oil on board; monogrammed; 16 inches by 23 ˝ inches sold for $7,800. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries.
Clementine Hunter has been called the Black Grandma Moses. She was the first African-American woman to exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Over a 40 year period she created more than 5000 paintings and never learned to read or write.

From the Black Jesus to the Zinnias in a Red Pot, each work of art is a unique take on the world. Colorful. Simple. Magical.

Hunter recreated plantation life on anything she could find from milk jugs and paper bags to gourds and cardboard. Hauling cotton, collecting pecans, washing clothes, baptisms, weddings, funerals, it’s all there in Hunter’s work.

With no academic training or exposure to masterpieces of the past, Hunter’s voice is free of the chains of schooled craftsmen.

The perspective in her work is distorted. Realistic size and scale is missing. The works seem uneven at times.

But--the result is charming.

Born on a plantation in circa 1886 in Cloutierville, Louisiana, Hunter took her babies into the cotton fields with her as she picked cotton as a young woman. She could keep a watchful eye on them and still be a field hand.

From the cotton fields Hunter moved up to the master’s house of Melrose Plantation where she worked. John Hampton and Carmelita Garritt Henry, also known as "Miss Cammie" were its owners.

In the big house she cooked, did laundry, gardened and also made clothes for the children and their dolls. In her free time Hunter stitched colorful quilts. Her love affair with color showed up there. As the years passed Melrose Plantation became a haven for writers and artists. In the late-1940s one of the artists visiting the plantation left behind tubes of paint.

"I could do a painting if I set my mind to it," Hunter reportedly said to Plantation curator Francois Mignon. He encouraged Hunter and gave her a discarded window shade to use as a canvas. That was the beginning.

Late at night often by kerosene lamp she "marked" her pictures with scenes "the Lord puts in my head," she said. At first Hunter hid the paintings fearing she would be accused of avoiding her domestic duties.

By 1979, Robert Bishop, director of The Museum of American Folk Art in Washington, was calling the 90-year-old artist ''the most celebrated of all Southern contemporary painters.’’

Hunter painted almost until her death at about age 101 on Jan. 1, 1988. Late in life she said picking cotton was the thing she enjoyed the most.

She didn’t sign her earliest works. About 1944 signatures began to appear on her works. The first signature was "Clemence", added by friend and mentor James Register.

The signature CH appeared in the 1950's and continued into the 1960's with the C reversed. During the 1970's and forward, the reversed C was moved closer to the H and finally overlapped it.

On Aug. 2 & 3, New Orleans Auction Galleries in New Orleans, La., featured a selection of Hunter’s work in its auction. Here are some current values.

Clementine Hunter

The Cotton Gin; oil on canvas; monogrammed middle right, 16 inches by 20 inches; $3,840.

Zinnias in a Red Pot; oil on board; monogrammed lower right, verso with framer’s label “Yardberry’s Inc., Baton Rouge, Louisiana”; 24 inches by 15 inches; $5,280.

Cane River Baptism; oil on board; monogrammed middle right, verso with framer’s label “Yardberry’s Inc., Baton Rouge, Louisiana”; 16 inches by 24 inches; $5,280.

Black Jesus and the Angels; oil on canvas board; monogrammed lower right; 16 inches by 12 inches; $5,280.

Funeral Procession; oil on board; monogrammed middle right, verso with framer’s label “Yardberry’s Inc., Baton Rouge, Louisiana”; 16 inches by 23 ˝ inches; $7,800.

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