Clementine Hunter was born on Hidden Hill Plantation in 1886. At the age of 15, she moved to Melrose Plantation, just south of Natchitoches, Louisiana where she picked cotton and pecans in the 1920s and eventually became a domestic worker.
Clementine had spent much of her life laboring in fields but when she arrived at Melrose, she discovered paints and brushes left behind by a visiting artist. Clementine began “marking a picture” (her description of painting). Inside her cabin on the ground of Melrose, she “marked pictures” with scenes of plantation life including picking cotton, gathering pecans, washing clothes, ceremonial baptisms and funeral scenes. Clementine always used discarded items as her canvas including window shades, cardboard boxes, jugs, bottles and gourds.
Melrose Plantation was started by a mixed-race Creole and by the time Clementine Hunter moved there, it was run by a woman who cultivated the arts and had artists from all over the country come and live as artists in residence. François Mignon, the plantation curator, encouraged Clementine’s talent and took her paintings to a local drugstore to sell for a dollar.
Clementine also made her work available for viewing in the shack where she worked. You could “look for 50 cents.”
Clementine’s paintings were a unique style of social commentary reflecting the harsh life of Black Americans in the south. This determined, talented woman became one of the most renowned, self-taught artists in the United States and is often referred to as the Black Grandma Moses. She was the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art and achieved a significant amount of success during her lifetime, including an invitation to the White House from U.S. President Jimmy Carter (which she declined because she didn’t want to travel outside of her home state). Clementine Hunter painted between 5,000 – 8,000 works and later in her life she bought a simple rickety trailer and settled into her new home at the end of a dirt road just up the river from Melrose. She died in 1988 at the age of 101.