This lecture is part of the Divine Disorder Conference held February 24-26, 2015.
“Revisiting Clementine Hunter’s Murals at African House” by Jill Whitten and Robert Proctor
Jill Whitten: Hi. I’m very happy to be here. Can you hear me all right?
The story today centers around some remarkable people, three remarkable women and probably more than that in the grand scheme, and some remarkable men. This is the Big House at Melrose Plantation. Melrose Plantation was founded by the son of Marie Therese Coincoin, who was a slave who had a 19-year relationship with a French man who eventually purchased her freedom and the freedom of some of her children. She got an annual stipend and a piece of land, and she was an amazing business woman and acquired a great deal more land over the years. Eventually he broke up with her and married another woman as his reputation increased in the town. Marie Therese was born in 1746, and she was born a slave into the household of the founder of Natchitoches, which is spelled “Nat-ch-it-oches,” but it’s pronounced Nakadish. This is all in the Cane River region of Louisiana. Her son Louis Metoyer got this land. He got 991 acres, and he established Melrose Plantation.
He started the construction in 1932, and it was continued by his son, that her children developed a lot of property in the area, had different plantations. It remained in the family from 1796 to 1884. There were a number of terrible droughts. The plantation had a lot of different things over the years, a little bit of tobacco, maybe a little bit of indigo, always pecan trees. It was briefly owned by the Hertzog family. They bought it for a pittance. Then it was sold to the Henry family in 1899. John Henry and his wife, Carmelite , she was known as “Cammie”, lived there and just did a lot of work improving the house. They added two towers at either end of the home. John Henry only lived there for 20 years, and he died.
Well, Cammie Henry was the second remarkable woman. She continued to farm after her husband died, and she started an artist’s colony. She was incredibly interested in the local folk arts, weaving. She apparently collected log cabins, and she made elaborate scrapbooks. She invited really important and not so important painters and writers to come and stay with her for extended periods, and it was this amazing lively place.
This is one of the early buildings from the plantation. The estimated date is about 1810. This was probably the original colonial home on the plantation. It predates the Big House. This is a really enigmatic and wonderful structure on the property, probably built between 1820 and 1830. It’s just unique in its materials and design. We’re going to be talking more about that as we go along. Here’s just a little bit more. There’s a thing called the Creole Cottage, which is an important part of the vernacular of the area, but African House has this remarkable freestanding roof. There was not clear evidence that there were ever any posts. It’s this structure that defies logic and gravity, and everyone is compelled by it.
Enter the picture back, Clementine Hunter, who was born in a family of sharecroppers in 1887, and she moved to Melrose Plantation at age 12. Her family worked picking cotton. She worked in the fields and attended school for one year, but she didn’t like it. She kept running away from school and said that she preferred picking cotton to the confining structure of the schoolroom. She was a field hand, She was a maid in the house, and eventually she became a cook.
Somewhere along the way one of the guests at the house, whose name was Alberta Kinsey, left some paints behind. In 1938, that’s the earliest date we know, Clementine made some paintings. She started to experiment.
In 1939 one of the remarkable men in this story shows up, and this is Francois Mignon. He was a gentleman who came from New York for a visit. Cammie Henry wrote him and said, “Oh, please come back for a longer stay,” so he stayed from 1939 to 1970. He really liked it. Francois was a writer. He wrote about gardens and local culture. He was quite the raconteur. They discovered over the years, the story grew that he was Francois Mignon from Paris and that he knew everything about French culture, and he let this story grow.
The wonderful thing about Louisiana and a lot of traditions there is that they’re oral traditions. Nobody will let a good story get in the way of the facts. This is what we have encountered throughout our research on Clementine Hunter is the remarkable people that tell the stories and the remarkable stories. We get a little hung up trying to separate the facts, but it’s not that much fun.
Francois is very intrigued by Clementine, who’s a good cook, and she brings him some paintings, and he decides she’s a fabulous painter. I guess they become close, and Francois writes about her. I think he was really a critical piece of the story in getting her recognition and getting the plantation recognition and getting recognition for himself. The curious thing is he was almost legally blind, and he wrote about gardens and art.
Here they are together. Francois became her agent, and people that came to the plantation to visit would have to go through Francois. Clementine didn’t really want to mess with visitors too much. This is the cover of a book. Up here … I don’t know if you can read it, but it says, “Twenty-five cents to look.” Well, up here it says, “Twenty-five cents to look,” and then she changed it to “Fifty cents to look.” One of the anecdotes is people would drive up and ask for direction to Clementine Hunter’s house, and she would send them down the road.
This is the cover of a wonderful book by Art Shiver and Tom Whitehead, These are two more remarkable people in the story, because Tom moved to the area I think in the ‘60’s and befriended Clementine. He was a teacher at Northwestern University, which is the university in Natchitoches. Every time he went he’d buy a painting. The prices of her work used to vary from 25 cents to I think $5.
He acquired her work, and he visited her every week throughout the remainder of her life and has done amazing original research looking at Francois Mignon’s notebooks. Francois kept a journal, and apparently there were 17,000 pages of journal that are now in an archives, thank goodness. Tommy and Art have done a lot of original research in that archives.
This is the little building, African House, as it looks today. It got shored up with some supports a few years ago. In 1955 Francois had this idea that Clementine should do some murals in the upstairs of African House, which had been used for storage, sort of as a barn over the years. It was cleaned out at one point for one of the writers on the property to live in. There’s an upstairs. She said she wouldn’t mind doing it.
John Henry, III, or something, immediately went out and bought some plywood, some Kentucky hardwood. They were four-by-eight sheets, and she started doing these paintings. Francois was very instrumental in the design and layout of the paintings, because she always worked small. She was someone who once she started creating really had to create. She would paint on bottles and shingles and scraps. She also made some quilts.
She agreed to do these murals. She was 67 at that point. She’d been painting since 1938. In six weeks she did these paintings. She decided after the first one that, she said, “I don’t want to do this for nothing,” and she wanted to be paid, but Mr. Henry said he depleted his budget in buying the plywood, and so a few local supporters who were friends of hers put a little bit of money in a pot, and I think she got $5 every time she finished one of these big paintings.
This is the way the paintings are installed in African House. They go entirely around the room, and they are scenes of plantation life. She was a memory painter. She didn’t work outside. She worked in her home from memory. I love it that Tom and Art came up with this term, I think they came up with it, “Insider artist,” because she was painting what she knew.
In the case of the African House mural she was also painting what Francois knew. He actually made up the name of this house. He made up names for a lot of the buildings on the property that have stuck, but they’re not accurate. African House probably has no relation to Africa, and Yucca House is also a made-up name.
Here is just one of the paintings in the cycle. This is African House, the Big House. This is Cammie Henry’s eldest son, Stephen, who is out examining his corn crops. This is supposedly Marie Thérèse Coincoin, and this is her husband Thomas Metoyer. Clementine, people that she considered important she would paint big. I think it must have been Francois’s influence for her to put these people in the painting. I don’t imagine they had much direct relation to her life.
This is Cammie Henry here under this little tree.
This is the Yucca House, which was used as a residence.
This is a great big sundial on the property.
This is one of the visiting artists, who was a woman photographer.
This is Francois holding a commemorative plate that he designed.
This is Clementine serving drinks.
These paintings are painted directly on the plywood. There’s no priming. A couple of people tried to influence her; “You have to prime the wood. You have to varnish it on both sides.” She just started painting directly on the wood.
This is a baptism scene. One thing that’s so wonderful I think about these paintings is that there’s just so much flow and repetition and beauty in the design. Apparently when there was a baptism everyone in the congregation wore white so they would all be at the same level. This woman, her daughters are getting baptized, and the story goes that although she was a God-fearing woman, she got a little bit jealous of the attention they were going, and so she jumped in the water, acting like she’d found God or something, and someone yelled, “Watch out for that water moccasin,” and apparently she got God and jumped right out of there.
Another local was looking at this painting one time, and he said, “Well, I wonder if them two ladies is the sisters of Jesus, because they’re walking on water.” It was really interesting to look at these things and think about this as an artist who always painted small and to see how successful she was going to a really much larger format. That can be really difficult for an artist.
This is a funeral, Cane River funeral. This is Aunt Addie, who was about 100 years old. She always drove the funeral trucks, everyone has on their finery. This must be a really important gentleman back in the background who’s ringing the bell.
This is cotton picking. There was a revival going on in the church, and these folks are picking cotton. This is the postmaster, I don’t know if the postmaster would have figured very largely in her life. Clementine was never taught to read or write. She didn’t have the opportunity although she was a very bright person. She told Francois once that it was really harder to mark a picture than it was to pick cotton, that she really liked picking cotton. They would sing all day,they would hang their babies in little hammocks in the trees, and they’d get to the end of a row and check on the children. I think it was just probably a time where she got to be with people that she really liked and be in a community that was maybe more welcoming than being a servant in a house of people where you might be invisible.
These folks are tending vegetables, and there’s a wedding going on. If it was a preacher she liked, she painted him big, but this was a preacher she didn’t care very much about. I like how the bride is so much bigger than the husband. Women did a lot of the work and figured more prominently in her life, I think, her daily life.
This is a pictorial map that Francois asked her to do from this plate that he designed. He wrote an article about her or wrote an entry in his journal that showed that she was a true primitive, because she didn’t get it absolutely right. These were the crops, the cotton and the pecans, and she only put one pecan. Still they’re wonderful paintings.
I don’t know if you could see in some of the earlier images, but there are streaks throughout the paintings. Early on someone said, “These things really have to be varnished,” and they were varnished with a material, we don’t know what it is, but it turned dark brown right away and is completely insoluble, so it’s been there for a long time.
These are just some details. The paintings are just so charming. This guy is knocking pecans out of a tree, and this woman is picking them up.
This is Mr. Henry on his horse.
This is Clementine painting. Actually, we’ve been told this is Alberta Kinsey painting, but she painted her as a black woman.
Here is a cart full of cotton. A lot of the paint is very thinly applied, but the cotton and the flowers are always really thick and have a lot of impasto. I think those are things that she liked.
This is from the baptism panel.
This is the self portrait that she included, although she’s not known to have ever painted outside. She took a little artistic license on that one.
These paintings were painted in 1955. By 1983 it was noted that there were some changes and some flaking. Michael Swicklik and Jay Krueger, who are both working at the Kimbell, were invited to come and look at the paintings, and they made a proposal. The following summer they came and treated all nine paintings, three over-doors and three other large paintings on the property, in two weeks. It involved cleaning. This is their treatment report, which you can’t read, but it involved cleaning and consolidation and re-varnishing the image side with a reversible varnish and the back side with polyurethane to seal the paintings, because there is some value in having a piece of wood treated the same on the front and back. It can slow down warping and things like that.
This little picture here, while they were there, one day Clementine Hunter showed up and they were just so delighted. She had on a really beautiful dress, and she hadn’t been over to see her paintings in 17 years, which I think is pretty powerful. The property was sold in 1970. I just think there wasn’t much money in it, and there was a big auction, and almost everything, the contents of art and furniture, were sold, but there was a big outcry in the community, and people came and saved the murals in African House from being sold, and they saved these three other big paintings.
Thirty years later, 60 years after they were painted, they were in need of retreatment. Michael Swicklik went and looked at the paintings in 2012. He actually gave a presentation at the last Divine Disorder Conference. At first blush of looking at paintings that live in an un-acclimatized environment, there’s no air conditioning. There are no screens on the windows. It’s a very humid place, where it rains a lot, and it gets cold in the winter.
We went and did some testing and looked at the pieces and came up with the proposal. Then in May we went back with a team of art removers from Houston and we started to take the paintings down for them to be treated in Houston. They wanted us to do it on site, and we just said, “These things really need massive treatment. We need the good light and materials and equipment in our studio,” and so we finally convinced them that that was the best way to go.
When we took them down, there was just a lot of spiders. The wood behind the paintings is this remarkable hand-hewn Cyprus. These boards are 12 to 14 inches wide and really long and just beautiful, but there’s knot holes and cracks and obviously lots of insects come in behind the paintings, so the first thing we did was vacuum them.
Then we thought, “Okay, we’ll put tissue on all the flaking parts,” and we ended up putting tissue almost all over all of the paintings, because we noted so much fragile paint. This is, you can see here what it looked like where the paint was lost. It was tinted, which is where the paint just comes up off the board. We used sodium carboxymethyl cellulose, which is a weak adhesive, to apply the tissue. We dried that with, it was a really wet day so we had little hair dryers to dry the tissue. Then the art movers wrapped the art and put it in an acclimatized truck and brought it to Houston.
These were the main concerns. There was lifting and flaking, bird droppings. We saw the spiders, but there were also insect exit holes through the wood, which is kind of surprising. The streaky, uneven coating, abrasion from cleaning over the years, lots of grayish and in the matten gloss and paint loss. These are just a few details of the insect exit holes, bird poo, and more flaking.
These are the steps that we did when the paintings came to the studio. We actually photographed them with the tissue on. We consolidated through the tissue with fish glue and set the paint down. Then in the process of taking off the tissue, also clean the paintings. The grime was really red. The earth there in Natchitoches is bright red dirt, lots of iron. We mended the plywood. We cleaned the front and back. There were a lot of articles on the back and we photographed and encapsulated the articles.
The first thing we did was we had them treated for insects in a nitrogen chamber at the Museum of Fine Arts. Steve Pine, who’s the furniture conservator for Bayou Bend, which is a wonderful historic, important furniture collection in Houston, said it was actually rare to find insects in plywood. We didn’t ever see any insects. It was just a precaution.
After we did all the cleaning and consolidation, we filled the insect holes and some of the deeper paint losses and put an isolating varnish of Paraloid B-72, which is a very stable varnish. We retouched with gambling colors and then put additional varnish on the front and the back to make a more uniform surface. This is Gabriel Dunn, one of the conservators in our studio, and she’s doing that first step of brushing the sturgeon glaze through the tissue. Then it’s set down with a little hot air tool, a small tacking iron.
This is a photograph that just shows a little bit more about the streakiness that was really pronounced in some areas. This is an ultraviolet photograph that shows the uneven application of the varnish. Some of the paintings actually have a lot of abrasion because it looks like over the years maybe people have tried to clean that brown stuff off, so adjacent to a really thick brown line will be an abraded area, which actually exacerbated those differences, those visual differences.
Here are two other people on our staff. This is Angela Hedgiev and Diana Hartman, who’s here today. She’s in the process of applying to conservation graduate schools. We’ve been working on this project for almost a year, and we’re nearing completion. This is just what the paintings looked like before and after. This is a painting that hung at the top of the stairs. As you come up, there’s not a railing on one side, and we think the painting may have been touched more and also probably humid air comes up the stairs and hits this painting first, so it seemed to have a little bit more problems than some of the others. The retouching is confined to the areas of loss.
I’m just going to go through some before and afters. This is the African House panel. This is after treatment. We did do some retouching to visually integrate those sharp divisions of the brown and the abrasion on top of the isolating varnish. This is before treatment, and this is after treatment. You can just see where we did some retouching and re-saturating with varnish.
Yeah. You can see it right here actually. Thanks, Rob. You can see along the edges, they’re protected by a molding. Under the molding the layering of the paint was a lot more complex, so you could see that it had both faded and been abraded through cleaning over the years. There aren’t any records about this being done. It’s just something that probably got done. Yeah, probably. I’m just not there yet, but you can remind me. Before retouching and after retouching.
A couple of weeks ago, probably early February, we had an event at our studio. So many people in Houston, when they heard that we were working on these paintings, said, “Oh, can I come see them?” It was really interesting how excited and enthusiastic people were. People who had heard of her and people who hadn’t heard of her were also pretty involved in a folk art group with the Orange Show and the Beer Can House. We knew those folks wanted to see it. We lined them up on the easels, and a friend took this panoramic photo. I was delighted that Tommy Whitehead joined us that evening. This is Tom regaling us with stories. He’s the most amazing storyteller. Fact or fiction, they’re delightful. Seventy-five people came, including our colleague, Nancie Ravenel, who was in from the Shelburne on a courier trip, so that was fun.
A couple of weeks ago we went, NCPTT sponsored a workshop. It was called Engineering for Timber Framing. They had expert timber framer, engineers, people who had worked on historic building preservation projects and some students from the Texas Conservation Corps, which is I think like AmeriCorps for Texas and people that work at the local, National Parks. Melrose is a national historic landmark now and is owned by a foundation called the ANPH, No, ANPH?
Mary Striegel: APHN.
Jill Whitten: APHN, the Association for the Preservation of Natchitoches Heritage, Historic Natchitoches. Okay.
We went to this workshop. We thought it was going to be like a charrette, and there was charrette aspects. We wanted to go to talk to these people, because the building, African House, where the paintings have lived, is going to be remodeled. It’s going to be conserved, restored and rehabilitated, which were the three terms that the timber framers used.
We went around and we looked at other historic buildings, the joinery, and how you tell if something is authentically old. This is a really old cotton gin on one of the national park properties. This is the oldest post in the ground building or the largest and oldest building of this kind. It was built in 1790, and it’s made with something called bousillage. The posts go into the ground. The walls are made with mud and Spanish moss and little boards that hold it all together.
This building was made as temporary housing in 1790, and it’s still there, and it has a dirt floor. It’s incredible that a lot of these really old buildings have survived. This is the kitchen of that house. Then we went back to African House, taking all that we’d learned about looking at old buildings. African House is 200 years old. We started to notice why the roof was doing what it was doing. At first everybody just looked. This big long supporting beam that shows, holds the longest side of the roof, has a split in it. Some of these posts have insect damage.
We were looking at this really interesting joinery of the dovetailed joints of these amazing hand-hewn boards, and we noticed that there’s a Roman numeral system going up the side. The boards are numbered. We also noticed that two numbers were missing at the top of each side. We were just all trying to figure out what’s happened to this building. It’s kind of unusual in that the bottom is made of brick, which would have been a more expensive and labor-intensive material maybe, say, for a little bit fancier buildings. The bottom of this house is brick, where most of the other buildings of this era are bousillage. “bousillage” is how they say it. This is bousillage in Yucca House. They have an open wall, so you can see this amazing technique.
This is the downstairs of African House. This brick floor was put in a few years ago when some repair work was done on the wall. There was excavation and concrete was put underneath. For better or worse, that was done. There’s some evidence that this floor, which was formerly just dirt, may be impeding humidification and that moisture may stay inside longer than it used to and seep up the walls. There’s all kinds of problems with salts and the bricks falling. We talked about all these things. It was really interesting. Part of the discussion for us was …
How do we rehabilitate this building so it’s a little bit safer place for the paintings? What can we do to make it a little bit safer place for the paintings? Part of it is put screens in the windows and put door mats down on the floor so not so much dirt gets tracked inside. Maybe close this door and have the public enter this way and then go up the stairs, so you don’t have humidity and temperature change sweeping up both flights of stairs.
In the last year some reproductions were made by a local company. These are the reproductions. Aside from being shiny and smooth, they’re kind of remarkable.This is the wonderful woman who actually funded this project. She died just a few weeks ago. Theodosia Nolan. Anyway, we thank her. This is where the paintings are going to go live when they get picked up next week. They’re going to go live in the new Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, which is an award-winning building built in the historic section of Natchitoches, that’s really quite different from where they’ve lived all this time.
One question I just want to leave with you, because one thing we think about is this cycle of conservation, that these things were restored 30 years ago. Now they’ve been conserved again. What are the concerns about leaving it in this building? I think everybody at Melrose, most of the people at Melrose, want to keep them there. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the importance that Clementine Hunter’s history lends to Melrose and vice-versa. It’s an amazing, compelling story. I don’t know. That’s one thing, if we have any time for discussion today or tomorrow, we would like to talk about. The paintings have a lot of meaning, of course, at Melrose. I want to thank our staff and the folks from Melrose and the authors of the books. You’ve been such a help to us; the foundation; Diana, who helped with this talk. Thank you very much. Here’s a little bibliography. Thank you very much.
In 2014, Melrose Plantation began the process of restoring the building known as “African House” and the murals by Clementine Hunter contained therein. The story of how Clementine Hunter, the grandchild of slaves and a worker at Melrose from the age of fifteen, became an accomplished and successful painter, is a remarkable tale. Her paintings of plantation, church and town life are simply rendered in bright colors and depict an idealized version of the hard work that went on there.
The mural paintings were conceived by Francois Mignon, a resident at Cammie Henry’s art colony that evolved on the plantation in the early 20th century. The nine large panels that were executed during a six-month period in 1955 are monumental in scope and scale. The paintings were restored by two young conservators from the Kimbell Art Museum in 1984. The paintings are revisited in this treatment; to clean, remove insects from the artworks and improve the conditions in the unclimatized building where they live. The works were treated by conservators from Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation who worked with the Melrose Plantation Foundation staff and board, and NCPTT (National Center for Preservation Technology and Training) to improve the installation, lighting and house-keeping measures for the long-term preservation of these whimsical, yet powerful images.
Jill Whitten has been a painting conservator in private practice in Houston, Texas since 1999. She received a BFA in Painting from the University of Texas at Austin, and an MA and Certificate of Conservation from Buffalo State College, New York, in 1992. She spent her graduate internship and a three-year Mellon Fellowship at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the winter of 1995, she received a Kress Grant to work as a guest conservator at the J. Paul Getty Museum on the first phase of a collaborative project to produce new retouching paints for conservators. She was a sabbatical replacement lecturer at the Buffalo State College Art Conservation Department in the spring of 1996. From 1996 to 98 she worked at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. testing retouching materials in the Scientific Department and as a conservator of 20th Century paintings. Jill has lectured and led workshops for conservators in the U.S. and Europe on the use of new materials for varnishing and retouching.
Robert Proctor studied Art History at Tulane University in New Orleans and graduated in 1980. He completed his graduate studies at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York in 1991. He traveled to Munich for his graduate internship at the Bayerisches National museum. Rob treated a large group of paintings by Max Beckmann at the Saint Louis Art Museum and has worked at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Rob is a specialist in the reweaving of tears and has taught workshops on reweaving and has lectured on varnishes for several years. He has worked as a contract conservator and treated a number of public murals from the WPA era.