Curator Bradley Sumrall at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art has more than 20 works by renowned Louisiana self-taught artist Clementine Hunter on display for the first time. They’re individual pages from an early sketchbook by the artist, from just a few years after she first began painting.
The works are on display through February 22 at the Ogden, but they’ve also been collected and published as Clementine Hunter: A Sketchbook, from UNO Press. Sumrall says it’s been a dream of art dealer and collector Richard Gasperi to publish the sketchbook in full. When Gasperi evacuated for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Sumrall says the sketchbook was the only piece in his 500-plus collection of works that he took with him.
Sumrall describes Hunter’s start in painting, as a worker on Louisiana’s Melrose Plantation:
“Her career started in 1939 when [French Quarter artist] Alberta Kinsey was at Melrose Plantation on an artists’ retreat. She noticed Clementine’s interest, so decided to leave her with brushes and paints, and apologized for not having any canvases to give her. Well that very night Clementine pulled the shade from her window, and painted a baptism scene.”
Her fame grew from there, to the point that she was well-known when Gasperi purchased the sketchbook from a Melrose plantation family around 1980. At one point President Jimmy Carter invited Hunter to the White House. Sumrall says he’s been told her response was, “Well President Carter knows here I live, so he can visit me.”
As for the paintings, oil on paper in a spiral-bound book, two are especially stunning to Sumrall:
“These were side by side in the sketchbook: a dancing couple and a woman sick in bed. You can tell she spent more time on these than she did on her later works.” There are more brushstrokes and detail, he says. With Woman Sick in Bed, “You actually see the desperation on the woman’s face.”
Sumrall also sums up Clementine Hunter’s place in the art world today:
“That this was a woman who was a domestic on a plantation, who picked cotton, and yet saw fame in her lifetime, makes her unique among self-taught artists. And that natural sense of composition and color that we see throughout her career places her firmly in the world of Southern art in general, not just self-taught art.”