Zinnia paintings by Clementine Hunter. First oil painting "Bowl of Zinnias".
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 "Bowl of Zinnias"
Clementine Hunter's First Oil Painting

 The Secret Paintings of Clementine Hunter - Part 3

Editor's Note:
James L. Wilson, Clementine Hunter authority and scholar, notes in his book, "Clementine Hunter -- American Folk Artist", that Francois Mignon thought Clementine may have been painting earlier than 1940.* As the history of the "Bowl of Zinnias" testifies, Francois Mignon was right.

Whitfield Jack, Jr. tells the story of
Clementine Hunter's First Oil Painting:

"Although the gardens of Melrose were vast and plentiful, it was my grandmother's custom on her frequent visits to Melrose to take something from her own garden to Mrs. Cammie. On one of these occasions, when Alberta Kinsey was also there, the flowers happened to be a bunch of zinnias which were in a hammered copper pitcher (the "bowl" shown in the "Bowl of Zinnias" painting).

Click to see the "bowl" in later paintings

As my grandmother related the story to me, she and Miss Kinsey were visiting together, and Miss Kinsey was so struck by the beauty of the zinnias and the copper pitcher, that she began to do a sketch for a still life of the arrangement. At one point Clementine came into the room and commented that she thought she might be able to paint a picture, too. Miss Kinsey stopped her sketching and rounded up a collection of partially used tubes of oil paint and gave them to Clementine, telling her to take the copper pitcher and the flowers and try her hand.

On my grandmother's return a few weeks later, Clementine presented her with the painting of the pitcher and the bouquet of zinnias. It was done on a piece of corrugated cardboard, actually the side of a corrugated box; and in her enthusiasm Clementine had apparently used up the entire supply of paint. The oils were laid on with abandon in thick brush strokes and generous dabs. The zinnias seemed to almost come alive, ready to be picked.

Detail from Clementine Hunter's painting "Bowl of Zinnias"
showing the thickly-applied oil paint

After this initial and singular extravagance with oils, Clementine apparently found that supplies were very hard to come by and was forced to economize in the use of her paint. Subsequent paintings, including the famous window-shade painting, were painted with oils highly-thinned with turpentine.

My discovery that Francois knew Clementine had done some early paintings before the window-shade painting came one day when I was visiting him at Melrose. He was showing a group of visitors around, and I heard him telling them his traditional story of Clementine presenting him with her "first painting" -- the window-shade painting with scenes of plantation life. Inasmuch as I had always understood that the "Bowl of Zinnias" was her first oil painting (and had heard Clementine herself refer to it as 'my first, and my favorite'), I asked Francois how there could be two "first" paintings?

(Continued ...)

Go to The Secret Paintings of Clementine Hunter - Part 4
In Part 4 Francois Mignon reveals to Whitfield Jack, Jr.
the existence of the early works

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Vignettes of Melrose by Whitfield Jack, Jr.
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* James L. Wilson, "Clementine Hunter -- American Folk Artist" Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna La. 1990. Page 27.