May 1, 2018

How Melrose Plantation's Most Underestimated Artist Became Its Most Famous

Clementine Hunter (pronounced Clementeen) is one of Louisiana’s most celebrated 20th-century folk artists. Hunter created thousands of pieces that depicted African American life at Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches Parish, where she lived and worked from a young age. She wasn’t interested in a formal education as a child and first worked on the plantation proper, picking cotton and harvesting pecans for 26 years before moving into the house as a cook in 1928.

At the same time Hunter was living at Melrose, a Distinctive Destination, plantation owner Cammie Henry was making artistic pursuits of her own, coinciding with the Southern Renaissance, the reinvigoration of American Southern art following Reconstruction. She transformed the main house into a retreat for local writers and painters (typically landscape artists). After Henry’s husband died in 1919, she became the owner of the plantation and the following year began inviting artists to stay there.

Though Melrose was geographically isolated, Henry stayed connected to the art world through her friendships with artists all over the country.

Cammie Henry at her looms at Melrose Plantation.

photo by: Melrose Plantation

Cammie Henry at work at her looms inside Melrose Plantation.

She accepted both men and women into her home, though all were white. When she invited artists to stay, Henry’s only requirement was that they be productive. According to Melrose site director Molly Dickerson, “If you didn’t have something to show after three days, you would be asked to leave.”

She may have had a progressive stance on art, but Henry was still a plantation owner. After she became the sole owner in 1919, Henry and her seven children ran it together through sharecropping, essentially another form of enslavement. African Americans like Hunter, who worked at Melrose in the fields or inside the house, received “Plantation Scrip”—money that could only be used at the plantation store. Most African American employees were tied to one plantation throughout their lives, unable to save enough money to escape and own property themselves.

Little evidence shows that Hunter and Henry had a relationship, whether personal or artistic, making it even more surprising that Hunter eventually became recognized as an artist. Her first foray into art is almost mythological—legend has it she first picked up paintbrushes and paints discarded from other artists staying at Melrose and never put them back down.

Clementine Hunter working on her paintings by palm plants.

photo by: Melrose Plantation

Hunter at work on a painting outdoors.

Clementine Hunter at her home, next to a pricing sign.

photo by: Melrose Plantation

For much of her life, Hunter only charged customers 50 cents a painting.

Her most famous works are nine oil-on-plywood murals that line the interior second floor of the plantation’s African House (a National Treasure of the National Trust), a structure built by enslaved people in the 1820s and the purpose of which is largely unknown. Much like Hunter’s other work, the murals depict the early 20th-century landscape and scenes directly taken from her own life.

The idea for the murals, which Hunter created in 1955 when she was 68, came from Southern writer Francois Mignon rather than from Henry. Mignon, a friend of Henry’s, took a great interest in Hunter’s work and jumpstarted her career as an artist by promoting her work to his network of artists. As Hunter’s fame grew, interviewers often asked about her difficult life on the plantation, but she spoke fondly of her time there. The vibrancy of her artwork reflects those feelings and experiences, whether it be picking cotton in the fields or attending a river baptism.

Although Henry largely ignored Hunter’s art, the latter became one of the most famous African American folk artists in history. Her work has been featured in the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and even the Louvre. Henry may have inspired prominent writers and artists in the Southern Renaissance, but the most underestimated talent working at Melrose ended up becoming the most prolific one.

Completed installation of the African House murals

photo by: Molly Dickerson

Restored murals by Clementine Hunter on the second floor of the African House.

Carson Bear is an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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