Simple, raw emotive power. The ability to form, in a few stark lines, an indelible impression representing a lifetime of experience. While much of the folk art in the Fenimore Art Museum possesses an intricacy and workmanship that can only be admired, virtually none has the impact of one small (15 1/4" square), unassuming piece: Clementine Hunter’s Black Crucifixion, painted sometime in the 1950s. And it’s not just the style. Hunter’s Jesus is black, and a woman.
Clementine Hunter had seen a lot of years, more than 100, actually. She was born in 1886 or 1887 at Hidden Hill Plantation in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, and grew up picking cotton. She worked for more than 75 years at nearby Melrose Plantation, not only in the cotton fields but also in the laundry and kitchen. The mistress of Melrose, Cammie Henry, made her home into a lively gathering place for artists, critics, and other cultural figures. By sheer happenstance, one of the visitors to Melrose in the 1950s left behind some discarded paints and brushes. Finding these items, Clementine did her first painting on an old window shade. It was the first of 4,000 works she would complete before her death in 1988.
Hunter’s subjects are usually memories of plantation life; weddings, funerals, baptisms, and cotton picking (lower right). In many of these works she includes a depiction of the “African House,” an old slaves’ quarters (designed and built by slaves; see below) on the grounds of Melorse. Painting in thick, expressive brush strokes, Hunter developed ways to enliven her works with color and composition. Rows of cotton pickers, for example, are often stacked vertically. She signed her work with her initials, writing the “C” backwards in deference to her mistress, whose initials were the same.
Few critics discuss her crucifixions, but they are her most powerful works. The one in our collection clearly shows a black woman on the cross, hands seemingly missing, suggesting mutilation. Blood drips from the nailed wrists and feet. She is flanked by angels signifying redemption. This is not an image you will forget any time soon.
Most critics refer to Hunter as a memory artist, and few of her paintings hint at the nature of her existence. Nor did she make much of it in the scores of interviews conducted with her over the years. Most of her work celebrates a good, long life.
But in a few pictures she quietly reminds us of the pain she must have witnessed and felt. Keep in mind that between 1882 and 1968, according to the Tuskegee Institute, 335 African Americans were lynched in Louisiana alone. Hundreds more, of course, in neighboring states. Clementine Hunter must have heard of these atrocities and, perhaps, alluded to them in her black crucifixions. Only when we establish this context can we appreciate the transcendent spirit of her art.