Clementine Hunter's window-shade painting not her first! Secret paintings discovered.
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 "Bowl of Zinnias"
Clementine Hunter's First Oil Painting

The Secret Paintings of Clementine Hunter - Part 4

(...continued from the previous page)

"When 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 work".

Here's how the two versions went:

Francois' Story

"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 ahead."

 Clementine's Story

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. Pages 44-45.


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 bugs.

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.

James L. Wilson, "Clementine Hunter -- American Folk Artist" Pelican Publishing Company Gretna La. 1990. Page 30.

The history 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."

James 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 . 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.

So, 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."

Whitfield Jack, Jr.

Go to The Secret Paintings of Clementine Hunter - Part 5
Read in Part 5 about the first public exhibition of
Clementine Hunter's "Bowl of Zinnias"

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