Clementine Hunter is perhaps one of the most important folk artists in American history. Born at Hidden Hill Plantation in Louisiana, she spent her youth as a farm laborer with her parents, working for the owners of the plantation. She never learned to read or write, and didn’t begin to paint until she was in her forties, the mother of five, and a full-time cook and housekeeper. At the time, she lived in Melrose Plantation where her father and later her husband worked, which was becoming a sort of artist’s salon.
Working with paint left behind by the guests of the house, Hunter painted what she saw. Her most known paintings are of plantation life – funerals, baptisms, weddings, and daily work. Later, as she developed her own artistic presence, she painted many floral abstracts.
“I just get it in my mind and I just go ahead and paint but I can’t look at nothing and paint. No trees, no nothing. I just make my own tree in my mind, that’s the way I paint,” she said of her style.
More than 50 of Clementine Hunter’s works, which are an important and vivid record of southern history, are being shown at the Cabildo, part of the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans. The display includes not only her paintings, but also a quilt sewn by Hunter, several found objects upon which she painted, and, unusually, a very convincing forgery of her work.
The forgery is actually the work of William Toye of Baton Rouge. He was arrested at least three times – in 1974, 2009, and 2010 – for painting and selling forgeries of Hunter’s art – both copies of her actual paintings and paintings in her style which he sold attributed to her. He and his wife claimed to have known Clementine Hunter personally. They escaped jail, but were ordered to repay nearly half a million dollars to those who bought their forgeries. Toye, like Hunter, is a part of the art history of Louisiana. His work deserves to hang with hers.