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Obituaries : C. Hunter; Artist Born to Slave Parents

January 05, 1988|From Times Wire Services

NATCHITOCHES, La. — Clementine Hunter, the illiterate black woman who gained worldwide fame for her bright, childlike renderings of plantation life, has died. She was believed to be 101, but her actual birth date has been listed as between 1880 and 1885.

The daughter of slaves, Mrs. Hunter, who lived on the outskirts of Natchitoches in a trailer parked on a rutted, unmarked road, died Friday at Natchitoches Parish Hospital, where she had been since Wednesday.

Mrs. Hunter, who did not start painting until late in life, worked in the cotton fields, laundries and kitchens of Louisiana plantations--chiefly Melrose Plantation outside Natchitoches.

Simple Paintings

She won renown for her simple pictures of flowers, farming and funerals.

In a review of an exhibit of her work at the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles' Exposition Park in 1986, Times art writer Suzanne Muchnic called her output "straightforward."

"There's little subtlety and sophistication in her work. She often applies pigment straight from the tube and deals with perspective by painting horizontal stripes of action; but she has a sure sense of design and an indomitable spirit."

Mrs. Hunter had worked in the fields until she was in her 60s and spotted some paint belonging to a New Orleans artist visiting Melrose Plantation. She borrowed a brush from a writer at the plantation. The next morning, she displayed a painting on a torn window shade.

It was the first of many near-idyllic visions of people fishing, riding horseback, going to school and burying their dead, as well as still-lifes of bright colors in colorful vases.

Each work was signed with her initials, with the C painted backward.

"I used to pick up little pieces of board and all kinds of little pieces of paper," she said in a 1985 interview. "Painted on everything. I didn't know if I was doing right or wrong, but I was painting. And I gave it all away. I liked what I was painting."

That same year, Robert Bishop, director of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City, said he was offered $10,000 for one Hunter picture. Tom Whitehead of Natchitoches, one of her early patrons, recalled paying a mere $3 for his first Hunter picture.

Because of her race, in 1955 she had to sneak into the Northwestern State University art gallery to see an exhibit of her paintings. In 1985, the same school made her an honorary doctor of fine arts.

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