April 22, 2015

Painted Memoir: The Story of Clementine Hunter and the African House Murals

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The first part of the African House murals.

In March, the National Trust named Melrose Plantation’s African House a National Treasure, kicking off the designation with a HOPE Crew project to restore the African House’s roof. Now, we continue to detail the African House’s historical influence and unique cultural heritage by exploring its murals and the artist who created them.

The African House murals are nine panels of folk art that depict the colorfully rich, day-to-day life and culture of the Cane River Country’s Creole inhabitants. But more than that, these murals lend insight into the life of artist Clementine Hunter during the early 20th century.

Clementine Hunter was born in late December 1886 or early January 1887 on Hidden Hill Plantation near Cloutierville, Louisiana. Her parents Janvier and Antoinette Ruben were Creole field laborers. When Hunter was about five, her father moved the family to Cloutierville looking for better work opportunities.

It was here that Hunter’s parents attempted to send her to St. Jean Baptist Catholic Church School so that she might receive a formal education. However, Hunter did not like the nuns' severity, nor did she like the constant conflict between the black and white children through the schoolyard fence that separated them.

She frequently ran away from school and, after awhile, stopped going altogether. Hunter's parents did not send her back because, as valuable as a formal education was, they needed her labor in the fields to help supplement the family’s income.

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Photo portrait of Clementine Hunter (date unknown) which hangs in the Clementine Hunter Art Gallery on the second floor of the Melrose Plantation Big House.

Later, the artist would relate that, though she never received a formal education, she didn’t feel she was at a disadvantage. Indeed, although she didn’t acquire knowledge from a classroom, Hunter took in the wisdom and cultural wealth that surrounded her and that would serve as a bottomless repository for her future paintings.

In 1902, when Clementine was about fifteen years old, Janvier moved his family again, this time to the heart of Cane River Country at Melrose Plantation. Melrose Plantation was established in 1796 by Louis Metoyer, a former slave and gens de couleur libres (or free person of color). By 1898 the plantation was sold to John Hampton Henry and his wife Carmelita, who was also called Miss Cammie.

After arriving at Melrose, Hunter spent the next 26 years of her life in the fields. During this time she picked cotton, harvested pecans, had seven children (two by her first husband Charlie Duprie, who died in 1914, and five by her second husband Emmanuel Hunter), sang, danced, and grieved the deaths of loved ones. This wealth of experiences would be added to the well of her memory, and each would soon take on a new life in her vibrant artwork.

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The second part of the African House murals.

In 1928, Hunter was promoted from field laborer to the position of domestic servant in the main house. By that time Miss Cammie -- who was passionate about preserving the arts -- had transformed the main house into a retreat for artists and writers. Ten years into Hunter’s post, a man named Francois Mignon came to Melrose Plantation as a literary aid to Miss Cammie. He became the catalyst that began Hunter’s career as an artist.

Mignon forged a lifelong mentorship with Clementine Hunter after she presented her first painting to him in 1940. He was so impressed by the work, that he encouraged her to do more. From then on, Hunter painted voraciously.

Using discarded paint tubes from the resident artists and any canvas she could find -- including soap boxes, cardboard, and paper bags -- Hunter painted from her memory rich scenes of life in the Melrose Plantation’s African-American community. Soon, Mignon provided her with all the materials she needed to paint and began to promote her work in the art world.

Over the next 40 years Hunter created over 4,000 paintings that depicted the cultural richness of the Cane River Country’s Creole community, many of them worth thousands of dollars today.

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A HOPE Crew member converts logs for the restoration of the African House roof in front of Clementine Hunter's cabin, a member site of Historic Artists' Homes & Studios.

But the most notable of Hunter’s pieces are the African House murals. The African House was originally commissioned by Melrose Plantation’s original owner, Louis Metoyer, and built by his enslaved workers during the 1820s.

Some 135 years later, in 1955, Mignon asked Hunter to do a series of paintings inspired by her life on Melrose Plantation for the second floor of the African House. She accepted, and for the next seven weeks she painted a lifetime’s worth of work, laughter, love, and grief at Melrose onto nine panels. The final result was a memoir in murals; her simple, straightforward rendition of not only her life, but also the life and culture of the Creole community along the Cane River in the early 20th century.

The impressive murals will be housed in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum until the African House is fully restored. Regardless of where the art lives, however, Clementine Hunter’s legacy as an artist -- and the legacy of the Cane River Country’s Creole people -- continue to live on in her brush strokes and vibrant colors.

Jamesha Gibson is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She is passionate about using historic preservation as an avenue for underrepresented communities to share their unique stories. Jamesha also enjoys learning about other cultures through reading, art, language, dancing, and especially cuisine.

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