Driving along the banks of the meandering Cane River are expansive fields where modern machinery cultivates cotton, soybeans, corn, and pecan crops. One of the oldest settlements in the Louisiana Purchase, the history of the farms in Natchitoches, Louisiana, is deeply intertwined with the broader cultural history of the American South. The region’s fertile soil and warm climate have always made it conducive for farming, and by the late 18th century and early 19th century, large-scale plantations began to dominate the landscape. Cotton was the most lucrative cash crop, and its demand drove the expansion of slavery in the region. Clementine Hunter was born into this lineage of labor, working in the same fields as her enslaved ancestors.
At the age of 8, she worked beside her father in the fields at Hidden Hill Plantation. By the time she turned fasten, her family moved to Melrose Plantation to pick cotton and harvest pecans and figs. The fabled Melrose was an entirely different type of plantation, as it was founded in the late 18th century by Marie Thérèse Coincoin, a Louisiana Creole of color, who rose to prominence as a successful businesswoman who manufactured medicine and sold cured tobacco, indigo, and bear and turkey pelts at the markets down in New Orleans. Her family built one of the most significant plantations in the US that was made for and by free Black citizens. As Melrose grew, it drew inspiration from African architecture, resulting in the creation of distinctive structures like the Yucca House, the Ghana House, and the African House. In 1899, Cammie and John Henry purchased Melrose and transformed it into a haven for visitors. In the 1920s, just as Clementine Hunter’s responsibilities shifted towards domestic work, cooking, and laundry for the ‘Big House,’ Cammie Henry opened Melrose as a bohemian artist and writers’ colony. One of the most frequent quests to the bucolic retreat was the New Orleans painter Alberta Kinsey. Legend has it that in 1939, after Kinsey departed, Hunter stumbled upon brushes and discarded tubes of oil paint in her quarters. Though Hunter’s recollections conflict with this story, it has become a part of the lore, retold until it assumed the status of fact. The rest, as they say, is history.
In no time, she was painting anything She could get her hands on. Canvases, wine bottles, lampshades, gourds, and spittoon, having never painted before the age of fifty, in the end, she left behind some 5,000 to 10,000 works of art. Her work is a rare example of a time and place of plantation life in the rural south, as told from the Creole and African American perspective. She did her job at Melrose, then cared for her husband, but she was up painting long after everyone had retired for the night. Working from memory, she depicted everyday life around the plantation, from work in the fields to how people worshipped, lived, entertained, and died. At the start of a tube, paint would be applied thickly, almost in textured globs. Later, her paints would be thinned and stretched out with kerosene or turpentine, dissolved almost to the point of appearing to be watercolors. Hunter’s paintings have this vibrant energy, with their cheerful palette and sense of immediacy, perspective and scale be damned.
As Hunter embarked on her artistic journey, another significant figure entered the narrative—François Mignon. A writer with expertise in art and gardens, Mignon came from New York. His extensive knowledge of French culture led some to believe he hailed from Paris, but in reality, he was raised in Upstate New York. Mignon’s first visit to Melrose left such an impression on Cammie Henry that she extended him an invitation to return. He accepted, and from 1939 to 1970, Mignon became Hunter’s most ardent advocate.
Mignon played a pivotal role in promoting Hunter’s work. As she continued to paint prolifically, he would take her paintings to a nearby drugstore where they were sold for a dollar each. In 1956, Mignon illustrated a Melrose Plantation Cookbook. He not only supplied her with materials but also corresponded with friends and potential patrons, keeping them informed about her work. In 1955, he played a crucial role in organizing her first solo exhibition at Northwestern State College (now University). This event marked an important milestone as it was believed to be the first solo exhibition by a Black artist in Louisiana. Notably, Hunter would later become the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Delgado Museum, now the New Orleans Museum of Art. The racial segregation of that era necessitated Hunter’s discreet entry through the back door to view her own exhibition.
Now, as many stunning Hunter paintings as there are out in the world and hanging in prominent institutions around the US, I drove four hours from New Orleans to see a specific work, her magnum opus, that will forever live solely at Melrose. In 1955, Mingnon encouraged Hunter to paint a series of murals on the second floor of the African House. It would be one smaller panel, and the remaining eight would be approximately 8 feet by 3½ feet each. They were sheets of plywood that would be delivered to Hunter’s home that she would paint over six weeks. She was 67 years old at this point.
Much like her previous paintings, the murals narrate what it meant to live in the Can River Valley. They illustrate the never-ending rhythms of planting and reaping, occasions of joy, and moments of sorrow, all portrayed by someone living the life herself. The first painting is a play off a straightforward circular map of the region, taken from a commemorative plate that Mingnon brought her. It accentuated the region’s three primary products: cotton, pecans, and churches. Following the panels in the round, you find depictions of cotton cultivation, hoeing, and harvesting. There is a wedding, and Hunter’s sense of humor is unmistakable. If she liked someone she was portraying, they were depicted as larger. Here, the bride is much bigger than the husband. The husband is substantially more significant than the minister. The way Hunter saw things, women did a lot of the work around the plantation, and thus, their presence was emphasized significantly more than the men.
The subsequent panels offer glimpses of a Cane River funeral and a river baptism, each featuring distinctive perspectives and character profiles. A woman known simply as Dorsey feigns being overcome by the Holy Spirit, leaping into the water to divert attention away from her daughters, who are being baptized. Her act is short-lived as she hurriedly exits the water upon hearing a warning about a large water moccasin. As recounted by Clementine Hunter, “Right at that moment, Dorsey abandoned her religious facade and swiftly retreated to the riverbank.”
Panels 6 and 7 are called “The Domestic Arts” and “Wash Day” murals. In the “Wash Day Mural,” we see a clothesline adorned with colorful undergarments flapping in the breeze, with a self-portrait of the artist herself diligently painting in the upper corner. The men in the scene are all lazily resting while the women are engaged in the wash pot and bending their backs over the washtubs.
When we arrive at the plantation honky-tonk, the Saturday night juke joint, Hunter depicts men and women drinking, dancing, and quarreling to the point of a tragic confrontation. To the left, the young men are consumed by the pecan harvest, one man in red hanging from a branch, shaking it for those on the ground to gather the bounty. But right beside them, inebriation has led to paying the ultimate price. Hunter plays with time here, as one man shoots, the bullets still suspended in flight, while his victim lies in agony on the floor.
Traveling to Natchitoches, taking the tour at Melrose Plantation, has that transformative power of traveling to see the Sistine Chapel. They evoke a similarly profound and overwhelming sense of awe that cannot be replicated in photos. You need to be here to feel the sun’s heat in the yard and the cool of the shade in the African House, to step inside from a world of natural sounds to appreciate nothingness. A moment of pure silence in an otherwise always noisy world. To stand in the middle of these murals and slowly spin, to combine your admiration for the art and the history with a sense of wonder and contemplation as to what this world was like. This is a space, a set of murals that will leave a lasting impression on those who have the privilege of seeing them firsthand.