Dear Helaine and Joe:
In 1972, I went on a trip to Natchitoches and Melrose Plantation in Louisiana. At the plantation, we bought two paintings from an elderly black woman. I asked her if she had any more, and she replied, “only one, that’s not dry.” I bought it, and later found out I had bought it from Clementene Hunter. Aside from being wet when I bought it, it appears to be unfinished. Can you tell me who she was and about my painting?
Dear A. N.:
First of all, her name was Clementine Hunter, but it is actually pronounced the way A.N. spelled it — “Clementene.” Originally, this extraordinary woman’s first name was “Clemence,” but she changed it after moving to Melrose Plantation at the age of 15.
Hunter was born either in December 1886 or January 1887 at the notorious Hidden Hill Plantation located near Clouterville in Natchitoches Parrish, La. The plantation was supposedly the inspiration for the plantation in Louisa May Alcott’s influential antislavery book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which was first published in 1852. Hidden Hill is now sometimes called “Little Eva’s Plantation.”
Over the years, Cammie Henry, the owner of Melrose Plantation, entertained a variety of artists and writers, and after a 1939 visit, New Orleans artist Alberta Kinsey left some paints behind. This marked the beginning of Hunter’s career. She used the abandoned pigments to “mark a picture” on a window shade.
Hunter’s career was promoted by Melrose Plantation curator Francois Mignon, who supplied the artist with more paints and art supplies and took the finished paintings to the local drug store where (at one time) they sold for a dollar. On the outside of Hunter’s cabin, there was a sign that read, “Clementine Hunter, Artist, .25 cents to look.” We wonder if A. N. paid the .25 cents to look in 1972.
Hunter was a very prolific artist. It is said that she produced somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 paintings before her death in 1988. Even though she was Creole, Hunter is sometimes referred to as “the black Grandma Moses,” and she created an important record of plantation life in the opening years of the 20th century.
It is a shame that A. N. failed to give us three vital pieces of information: the piece’s size, what it was painted on and how it is signed. Many of Hunter’s paintings are signed with her backwards “C” and “H” monogram, but sometimes they are signed on the back (verso) in pencil.
There is no question that the piece is in Hunter’s style, but there are Clementine Hunter fakes out there and buyers are wary. We are also unsure whether or not this piece is unfinished. Sure, the bottom part of the chair is missing, but the background is intact and we are not sure what might have been in Hunter’s mind. Currently, a good sized piece such as this one might fetch more than $3,000 at auction.