Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 22, 2018
Richard Gasperi Clementine Hunter: A Sketchbook Exh. cat. New Orleans: University of New Orleans Press and Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 2015. 64 pp.; 50 color ills. Cloth $25.00 (9781608010363)
The Gasperi Collection: Self-Taught, Outsider, and Visionary Art
Exhibition schedule: Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, October 4, 2014–February 22, 2015

Clementine Hunter: A Sketchbook, showcases twenty-six previously unseen paintings by renowned Louisiana artist, Clementine Hunter. The oil-on-paper sketches were completed in 1945, shortly after Hunter first began painting. She spent most of her adult life as a domestic and picking cotton on Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches Parish. Collector Richard Gasperi purchased the sketches from the Henry family during the 1970s. They were displayed for the first time in 2014 as part of the Gasperi Collection exhibition.

In the introduction, Gasperi tells a riveting story about the survival of the paintings. On August 28, 2005, he was forced to choose from among 500 pieces of art collected over nearly forty years. As the storm, better known as Hurricane Katrina, moved towards them, he decided to “grab only the satchel with the sketchbook, in hopes of one day sharing it with the world. That day has arrived, and I hope you appreciate this side of Clementine Hunter.”

The sketches were distinctive in style and subject matter. Unlike the pictures created for sale, Gasperi appreciated that the oils on paper were intimate perspectives on Hunter’s life. They portrayed her working years and portraits of her family. Gasperi argued that these images revealed her thoughts and struggles about complicated ideas and issues in life. They were themes rarely revisited as Hunter’s work became more popular.

Bradley Sumrall, chief curator at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, agrees with Gasperi concerning the unique value of the oil sketches. He points out that Hunter’s imagery is commentary on her personal experiences growing up in north Louisiana. She may never have traveled more than 100 miles from home, but the oil sketches express gratitude for nature’s beauty, reveal a deep understanding of human character, expressing an accumulated wisdom that even urbane, contemporary viewers can relate to.  

While the personal is certainly a dominant theme in A Sketchbook, I propose that it is the land and the ways in which the solitary Hunter, along with the few other individuals she depicts, interact within the landscape that is most riveting. In most images, Hunter’s characters, including the few animals represented, move or are at rest across a low, horizontal strip of land painted in tones of green, red, brown, and gray. The land stretches from one end of the paper to the other and expands out into a wide-open sky. Against this backdrop, human-made objects are few and small. Hunter’s people are identified by their rich dark-brown-to-black skin tones and thick, black curly hair. They stand tall upon the earth and look directly back at the viewer. In most cases they stand or sit near huge trees that preside over the landscape and all that is within it. The other most persistent visual device is the use of flowers. They grow in the landscape, appear as bouquets in vases nearby, may adorn a woman’s hair, are presented as gifts by children or suitors, and are sometimes painted as the main subject. Flowers seem to most strongly represent the gifts of nature, especially when they are presented as offerings in the hands of children. Girl Handing Woman Bouquet (21) and Red-Headed Boy Offering Flowers (37) are excellent examples. In the former, an older woman accepts a gift of flowers from a little girl with outstretched arms of joy. In the latter painting, the recipient of the little boy’s gift is not within the picture frame. But he is irresistible in his blue overalls, red hair, and red socks as he heartily holds out his hand with his yellow flower. Children with flowers are vivid images of gratitude for the gifts naturally bestowed by the environment in Hunter’s world. In the snapshot of Hunter on the last page of the book, she stands next to a flowerbed filled with sunflowers and chrysanthemums.

It is the visualization of the rural Cane River region, combined with a few, but salient details of everyday life in the South, that make the oil sketches so interesting. For example, in Two Women Friends one can almost hear the conversation. In this case, the stretch of green-brown earth has become the proverbial meeting ground where daily conversations take place. The women’s lime green and orange sweaters play off against brightly colored flowers and dark skin tones. Both friends have one arm placed on the hip, suggesting how deeply they are engaged in the important give and take of humans talking and listening to each other. Recording such ordinary gestures specific to women’s culture reminds us that Hunter was a keen observer of her daily environment.

While large communal gatherings in pastoral settings are not represented in the early works included in Clementine Hunter:  A Sketchbook, interpersonal relationships are still a dominant theme. The universal passages of life, including work, love, motherhood, and end of life are all depicted, and from the rare perspective of a black woman coming of age in the rural South during the early twentieth century. For instance, romantic relationships are portrayed by an adult couple dancing together (27), while another twosome greet each other at a designated spot underneath a great tree (51). The mother in Mother and Two Children (19) is almost as tall as the tree whose branches spread out above her head. The gigantic tree effectively diminishes the small lawn chair next to it, which could not have supported the mother’s larger-than-life, monumental figure, her arms protectively wrapped around two children. In Hunter’s world, the strenuous life of motherhood on a small rural farm was envisioned as a force of nature to be reckoned with.

Finally, Hunter’s depiction of sickness and death indicates that there is a point in time when we all ruminate about such matters, and she expressed such critical thinking in her work. Gasperi interpreted Sick Woman in Bed (25), as a depiction of illness and horror at one’s impending death. This is one of only two interior scenes in A Sketchbook. Stylistically it is depicted in the same fashion as the landscapes. However, the bed, night table with pitcher and lamp, as well as the large vase of flowers suggest a bedroom. The wide-open eyes and open mouth revealing teeth is the same formulaic treatment observed on the faces of most of the figures in Hunter’s paintings. The eyes are larger in this case, possibly to convey the gaunt appearance of ill health. And this may also be a reference to the fear of dying alone. Horror, however, may not best describe the worldview of African American religious faith and its strength in times of crisis, particularly in the South. Instead, there are stages in the acceptance of the certainty of death that are typically found throughout human societies. Perhaps we bear witness to Hunter’s experiences, and thoughts on the subject.

Since the creation of these early artworks, Hunter has become one of America’s finest self-taught artists, documenting life in the rural South during the early twentieth century. In particular, the better-known, more popular paintings of baptisms, cotton picking, weddings, picking pecans, washing clothes, and funerals are most associated with Hunter. However, Clementine Hunter: A Sketchbook, reveals the lesser-known and more complicated artworks that grew out of her earliest strivings as an artist. These works reveal the hidden life of a black woman shaped by historical, social, and cultural contexts specific to her family and community roots in the Cane River region. Inspired by a life experience of hard work in domestic service and agriculture in a somewhat isolated rural enclave, Hunter’s visual narratives tell how her community was not only sustained by the land, but nurtured by its spirituality. The sense of place detailed in her paintings expresses a profound engagement with the land, specifically the Southern landscape, originating with the generations that tilled the earth through slavery, freedom, reconstruction, and Jim Crow.  

The book therefore highlights the need for studies about artists like Hunter that expand beyond the boundaries of defining this specific creative expression as vernacular, outsider, self-taught, art brut, or raw art. Hunter’s evolution as an artist was more complicated and intricate than the limitations of labeling have allowed scholars to explore. As an artist she functioned within an aesthetic tradition predominated by African Americans in the rural South that evolved independently of the mainstream art institutions they were denied entry. Undaunted, Hunter is estimated to have created nearly 5,000 works of art. It is hoped that the surprises revealed in Clementine Hunter: A Sketchbook, will encourage new questions and perspectives.

Earnestine Jenkins
Professor, Department of Art, University of Memphis