A Visit to Clementine Hunter’s House With Tommy Whitehead

This video along with a 3D scan of Clementine’s House are intended as a virtual tour for those interested but might not be able to visit this artistic and historic site.

Clementine Hunter House at Melrose Plantation.

Tommy Whitehead: This is the front porch of her cabin and she had it screened in early. I started coming out here in the 1960s and it was screened then. She would charge you to look at the paintings. Now if you bought one, she probably didn’t charge you, but if you just came out here and looked and took her time, she’d charge you 50 cents to look.

In 1977, when Clementine Hunter bought a house trailer and moved up the road, this house was left vacant across the road. And the historical group, Maxine Sutherland, went and got the owners of the property to agree to donate the house to APHN Melrose, and then a company from Alexandria, Louisiana, brought a truck up here and moved it over to Melrose. It sat here for about 30 years before restoration work was done. The past two years we’ve made an interpretive center on the life of Clementine Hunter and her paintings.

As we go in the house, the house is four rooms. The four rooms have been, were two bedrooms, a kitchen and dining room type place, and a living room. And whenever APHN got it, there was also across the back where there was a bathroom and a kitchen. That was not moved. It was an add-on to the house across the road.

So when the interpretation plans were made for the house, we decided the best thing to do with the house was to tell the story of Clementine Hunter and the painting she did here. So we’ve taken themes; this one, the first room, the living room, is now the room that tells the story of work out here at the plantation. There are scenes, for example, here there is hoeing cotton and picking cotton. And you might notice, too, the styles of these paintings vary. Her painting style varied as did her signature over the years. And you can look, I can look at a painting and tell within a few years what year she painted it.

Here is another cotton picking. Here’s one hauling. The people picking the cotton, hauling the cotton to the gin, and then the cotton gin. And we added a photograph here, a historic photograph of what the gin actually looked like. So you can see here what she’s depicting in her paintings, the cotton gin.

Here is another activity of the fall, picking pecans. Pecans were a big crop here, and on weekends, they allowed the people that work here to whatever pecans they picked up they could keep and sell. So pecan picking on Sundays were a big deal here. Here’s an earlier version of pecan picking. You might notice here in this one, the ladies are picking up pecans and the man sitting here in the shade drinking under the tree. She oftentimes depicted men as being less than the best workers on the plantation. She early celebrated the work of women at Melrose Plantation.

Gathering Sugar Cane.

Here in the living room there are several other panels depicting life at Melrose. One is picking figs. There’s fig season is in the summer, usually June and July, and they made preserves. And it was a big community activity because there only was a couple of days to pick the figs. However, the whole family got involved.

Also some other scenes depicted here in her paintings about Melrose was wash day. That was always on Monday and they always had red beans and rice for lunch because the red beans could simmer all morning while they washed the clothes. Here’s various versions of it. And of course an activity year round was chopping wood. They had to chop wood for the fireplace, they chop wood for the stoves before they had gas or electric. So chopping wood was a quite a common activity here at the plantation. There was always somebody chopping wood.

One other story about this room that comes to mind, and it’s one that I will always remember, is that there was a living room. She had it set up as a living room. There was a sofa where I’m standing and chairs, and there was a television set in that corner. And I would come out here oftentimes in the afternoon, I believe it was four o’clock, and the Beverly Hillbillies reruns were on. And she would sit there and what she loved to identify with the granny character, the old lady in the TV series, and she would actually sit and watch the Beverly Hillbillies on TV in this room.

Original wallpaper.

The back, if we continue through the house, this room is the one where she painted, and this is, we managed in the restoration to actually find a photograph of her in the room, in this room, and we copied it. We couldn’t find any more wallpaper like it. It had been taken down. So we had a company in Dallas print the wallpaper. We reprinted the wallpaper to put on the wall for the conservation, for the display of the room.

She always paint, she never used an easel. She always used, she held the painting in her lap or propped it up, and she’d squirt her paint here on this board to mix for to put on the boards. Now mind you, I have seen, she could do colors really well, but she could not duplicate a color. If she knew somebody wanted something repaired or she forgot something, it would oftentimes, the way she mixes paint, it would not exactly match. But this is an original palette of hers where the paint was squirted and she mixed, painted the paints on it.

The stove here in the corner’s a potbellied stove, and it is one that she kept little wood fire burning in there most of the year. You could come out here in May and it was hot. She’d have a little fire going. She liked to keep warm. As she got older, she got colder, I guess. But that little potbelly stove is original to the house, and it is really symbolic of her sitting there painting, right. But I have many photographs and stuff of her sitting by the stove, painting.

The other thing in this room, we’ve added some biographical information. She received the first honorary doctorate by an African American at the university in Natchitoches, Northwestern State, and they got her in a cap and gown and took her to the university to receive her doctorate, honorary doctorate. That was very special. I was there.

And this is her signature changed over the years. And people that know her work, and I actually date the paintings based upon looking at these signatures. Initially she didn’t sign any paintings. Then she, somebody taught her how to make her mark. She didn’t know how to write her name. And then she managed over the years for the signature to evolve, and it went from C separate H to the H backwards, and then by the time she passed away, the H was completely inside the C.

If we go on in here, this is a guest, this is a bedroom to where she would sleep, and a little cozy room here, and there are paintings that depict her life. We, it was the, we decided the decision was made to tell the story of her work rather than put furniture in here. And these paintings depict still lives and scenes of religion. She’s a very religious person, even though we don’t think she went to church that often. But if you’ll just look here, scenes of, here is the baptizing and black Jesus. Here’s Mary with child, the baby Jesus. Here’s the annunciation where they’re announcing the baby is coming, and here is another version of that.

Here’s a revival. We always liked these revival paintings, because you’ll usually see somebody, this person here it looks like, has gotten too much religion, and she’ll fall out in the church and they had to revive her with the fan to get her back to life. Here’s a big funeral painting. Funerals were a big occasion on Cane River. Angels.

Frenchie Goes to Heaven.

Here’s one that’s very spiritual and moving. Whenever her son, Frenchie, came home from California, about 1970s he came home and he was sick. And we asked him, “What’s all this about?” She said, “He came home to die.” And within a couple of months he did pass away. And the week after he was buried, they came up, she painted this of Frenchie going to heaven. He’s coming up out of the grave and you can see the heavens getting ready for him to come in. So this is a very personal and spiritual painting.

We added here flowers. She loved to paint flowers here is zinnias, early flower paintings, hauling a basket of flowers. And here’s some, this is a late period piece, to where her hand wasn’t quite as steady. But her paintings still have a great depiction of color and style to them.

Clementine knew the last of the freed slaves. This was 1920s. They were still alive. Uncle Israel and Aunt Jane, and they lived in Melrose out here. And Clementine painted a picture of them in their yard of their house. That’s Uncle Israel, that’s Aunt Jane. Here is the day that move, her moving from, moving into her house from the trailer. Hospital where she, where people went to the doctor.

Courtroom scene. We don’t know how she went to court, but we do know that, we think maybe she watched television and learned how, what a courtroom looked like. We don’t think she ever went to a courtroom.

And Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The plantation she was born on down the road about 15, 20 miles, little Eva. There is some speculation, probably fiction, that the character Uncle Tom’s Cabin was based on, the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, lived there. So they took a little bit of a rumor and made it into a story. And this is a picture, that’s Simon Legree with his whip and that’s Uncle Tom working in the flower garden.

And this is sort of interesting, I’m not sure about the title, The Good Darky, but there was a statue in downtown Natchitoches at the end of Front Street of a statue of a black man tipping his hat. And it was there for a long time, and it caused a great deal of controversy in the civil rights era, and it got taken down and moved. It’s actually in storage at LSU Rural Life Museum. But she did paint it and it’s the only known depiction of it by an African American person. So this is a story of Melrose and the community in time.

And there is another period here, depicted on paintings on the wall, reproductions, is abstract. She experimented with painting, which is kind of odd for a folk artist, but all of these are original compositions by her. And like this one for example, which is really a rather unusual even for her, she called it Clementine Making a Quilt, and it’s the, all those colors represent a patch quilt. And there she is in the middle sewing, and she’s painting the picture of her sewing it. So these paintings represent, it gives you a better idea of the style of Clementine, the style she did. She just didn’t paint people picking cotton. She painted all types of scenes of life at the plantation.

The other room here was another bedroom. She always, late in life, as long as I knew her, she always had a grandkid or somebody spend the night with her. She didn’t stay alone at night. And she, this room was depicted as various scenes of celebrations and activities on the river.

Birthday Party Painting.

Celebrations. Here is a birthday party. And this painting here is a arts center. It’s a primarily African American venue, and it recalls a boating party on Cane River.

Scenes of recreation and play. There was literally this building across the Cane River. It’s actually still here. It’s a friendly place. It’s a bar and it’s got a, this is oscillating window fan in the end of it. And this is a Saturday night party. There’re brawls and fights and drunk people. It’s quite a story about Saturday night on Cane River.

Wash day. This was a fish fry. This is a popular social activity to catch fish out of Cane River and have a fish fry. Community, watermelon eating, dancing. Here’s playing cards. They liked to play cards out here. Even in modern times, in early days there was a card playing group together. A little gambling on the side probably. And here’s a couple dancing.

Sometimes she would take the most simple schemes and make them into a painting. To me, this is one of the things that really distinguishes her, how she not only captured the big pictures, but she captured relationships.

This one is going fishing. Big activity here on Cane River was fish. Here’s the family going fishing, and here’s the family fishing. Here is their, they’re actually putting their poles in the river, catching fish. Here’s another version of the little boat, two people in a boat fishing.

And here’s a hunting scene. This was a quite, this is an early painting. Notice the gentleman in camouflage, and they’re hiding in the grass, and here are the birds. I don’t know if they still do it, but used to be when you killed wild fowl, that you hung him on a tree to draw, the blood to drip out them. It got the wildness out of them. So here’s a … you don’t see that often now.

This is something that was depicted in her painting, and we don’t know exactly what this one is. She, it’s two ladies and a mask. This very kind of like an American Indian mask of some sort. And then here are some hunters shooting birds, and we’re hoping they don’t shoot the ladies in the mask. But she just combined things together and made pictures.

So her paintings are not just pictures of cotton pickings and wash days and funerals. They’re pictures of life on Cane River. And I think her credit, her accomplishments be recognized for the fact that a person of her relationship, she was African American, she was elderly when she started painting, and she managed to capture a style of life from an insider’s perspective that no one else has done. They didn’t have access to paint or recordings or doc film and stuff, but Clementine’s paintings does that in its style of capturing life on Cane River.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]nps.gov
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119