(...continued from the previous page)
I asked Francois how there could be two "first" paintings,
he didn't answer me. He got up and left the room and came back
in a few minutes with a large flat package wrapped in newspaper.
Inside were five or six paintings which he said were Clementine's
"secret" paintings -- ones that she had painted on
her own, way back before he even knew she was painting. He said
that he had hidden them away for a rainy day. I remember that
the paintings were all on scraps of cardboard and corrugated
box material similar to that on which the "Bowl of Zinnias"
was painted. I don't remember any paintings that looked like
the plantation scenes for which Clementine later became so famous.
Francois confided to me, whispering in my ear like a child telling
a secret, "Your grandmother, Miss Blythe, has the very first."
The question about the two "first" paintings had answered
itself. I realized that Francois had talked himself into a chronological
corner: He had been telling the story of the window shade for
so long that it had become a legend. I had heard it myself numerous
times before, but had never brought up my curiosity about the
"Bowl of Zinnias". And Francois was not about to change
his tale after all this time (not that he really needed to, for
the window-shade painting was, in truth, the first oil painting
by Clementine that he actually saw). The fact that an earlier
"first" painting existed was a perfectly acceptable
situation in Francois' realm of storytelling. Clementine herself
even corroborated Francois' story, though in a slightly different
version. She knew a good happening when she heard one, and she
was far too shrewd to tamper with "history", especially
when doing so would require her to admit to having once done
the early paintings without telling Francois - a little transgression
on her part that Francois slyly described as "a bit of undercover
how the two versions went:
"Well do I remember when Clementine Hunter...first tried
her hand at painting. About 7 o'clock that evening, clutching
a handful of discarded old tubes of paint, she tapped at my door,
said that she could 'mark' a picture on her own...and...I cast
about and came up with an old window shade, a few brushes and
a dab of turpentine.
At 5 o'clock the next morning, she tapped on my door again, explaining
that she had brought me her first picture. I took one look at
it... (and) nearly fell out at the sight of it and exclaimed:
"Sister, you don't know it but this is just the first of
a whole lot of pictures you are going to bring me in the years
According to a well-respected authority
on Clementine's paintings, Clementine personally told him an
almost identical story, with the exception that she she says
that the painting was rolled up when presented to Francois.
Shelby R. Gilley,
"Painting by Heart -- The Life and Art of Clementine Hunter,
Louisiana Folk Artist" St. Emma Press, Baton Rouge 2000.
One might notice that, upon close scrutiny, some aspects of both
window-shade stories might exhibit certain peculiarities as to
logistics. Oil paints take many days to dry, especially at night
in humid Louisiana weather-- even if applied in thin coats. So,
one might ask how, in the period of time between 7 o'clock in
the evening and 5 o'clock in the morning, a wet, sticky oil painting
on a slick window shade could be completed, rolled up, delivered,
and unrolled without being smeared beyond recognition.
And even if the painting had not been rolled up (Clementine says
it was; Francois doesn't mention it), it would have been a quite
a feat for Clementine to have walked in the darkness of early
morning carrying a window shade some three or four feet long
covered with fresh oil paint a mile through the fields and down
a dirt road to the plantation without it picking up an impromptu
collage of red dust, cotton-plant detritus, and night-flying
Another noted Clementine Hunter scholar has reservations about
definitely assigning the window-shade painting as her first,
saying merely that evidence shows it to be either her first
or one of her first.
L. Wilson, "Clementine Hunter -- American Folk Artist"
Pelican Publishing Company Gretna La. 1990. Page 30.
of Clementine's first endeavors at painting is recalled by one
of Clementine's first mentors, James Register, who knew her at
Melrose in the early 1940's and who collaborated with her on
the now out-of-print children's book, "The Joyous Coast
- A Fable - Cane River, Louisiana". In the preface he paraphrases
Clementine's description of how she began painting as follows:
"I guess really got started painting back in the nineteen-thirties
when Miss Alberta Kinsey would come up to Melrose from her home
in New Orleans. Miss Alberta painted pictures of people and scenes
around and about the Cane River country. She was very good at
this. Sometimes I watched her paint. One day she gave me some
tubes of paint and some brushes, and she then told me to start.
I got empty cardboard boxes from the Melrose store and drew my
first pictures on the clean inside part. Later, I painted these
with oil paint and they turned out real well."
Register (story), Clementine Hunter (illustrations), "The
Joyous Coast - A Fable - Cane River, Louisiana", Mid-South
Press, Shreveport, Louisiana, 1971. Preface.
But the story of unfurling the window shade had great dramatic
flair. It was like an unveiling . ..like Columbus discovering
America. And Francois Mignon, as those of us who knew him well
knew, never let a few facts get in the way of a good story.
there really are two "first oil paintings", the first
one that Francois saw, and the first one that Clementine painted.
Both deserve their place in history."