Docent Permanent Collection Pick Ogden Museum Docent, Harriet Riley, Explores "Flowing River"

Take a look at some of our Docents’ favorite works of art from our permanent collection! This blog post is the first in a series looking at some of our Ogden Museum Docents’ favorite pieces. Ogden Museum Docent, Harriet Riley, chose to share Clementine Hunter’s Flowing River.

Clementine Hunter, Flowing River, c. 1950, Oil on panel, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. James Michael Fortino

Flowing River by Clementine Hunter is one of my favorite paintings in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Every time I share the work with students, they help me see something different. For such a simple composition, this work has a depth that continues to astound me.

Clementine Hunter (1886-1988) was one of Louisiana’s (and the world’s) most prolific self-taught artists. She didn’t complete her first painting until she was in her fifties. Born on a plantation to field laborers, she worked on the land to support her family and later became a cook in the kitchen at Melrose Plantation, which had become an artists’ colony. When she started to create her own art in 1940, Hunter used tubes of paint, brushes and other materials left behind by visiting artists. Much of her first works were painted on window shades. Once she started painting, Hunter was prolific, creating nearly five thousand works of art. She called her work “memory paintings” describing her daily life on the Cane River. For work that was originally sold for a quarter each, her paintings sold for thousands of dollars by the time she died in 1988. 

Flowing River depicts life on the Cane River, from birth to death. The constants in the painting, and in Hunter’s life, are the river and the church. We see the church (most likely her church), St. Augustine Catholic Church, at the top of the painting, showing the start of life. Then we also see the church at the bottom at the end of life. St. Augustine is the first Catholic Church in the United States to be founded, funded and built by African Americans.  Hunter’s depiction of her church in this painting, and others, shows that her faith is enduring. From the time she is born to the end of life, her trust in God sustained her. 

We see the Cane River flowing throughout the painting. To me, rivers symbolize powerful forces. As Hunter probably knew all too well, the river has the power to flood farmland and homes but it can also share its water for baptism, sustenance and relief from the heat. The river is life. In the great poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Langston Hughes writes, “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

A dominant theme in this painting is also the community at work throughout the painting. Everyday life is equated with worship for me. The beauty in washing clothes and picking crops and creating a home is not missed here. Everyday work becomes sacred in this piece. We see that a large part of Hunter’s faith is in the land and the community it sustains. Like the writer Wendell Berry says, “Put your faith in two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years.” Hunter values the land and her community depicted in this painting. We see the little details of everyday life from ringing the bell for church on Sunday morning to picking fruit and hanging clothes on the line to dry.

On my tours of the Ogden Museum with local schools, someone always points out the initials “CH” at the bottom of the painting. They love that Hunter signed her painting, especially when I tell them that she wasn’t able to attend school. I’ve been told that Hunter only attended school for ten days because she had to pick cotton all of her childhood. Most agree that she never learned to read or write, but she did know how to sign her initials to her paintings and she did so proudly.

My students always comment on the people bringing the flowers out of the church (probably because this lower part is at their eye level). They notice this tribute to the dead at the bottom of the painting. You can see the graves in the lower far right. In New Orleans, our departed are very present to us in the cemeteries which surround our neighborhoods with above-ground tombs. Our young visitors at the Museum are touched by the offerings to the dead. I think part of the beauty and meaning of this painting is that it shows us that all of life is holy ground. When we look at the whole of our lives, we find meaning in the sacramental moments such as baptism and death, as well as the ordinary; just as Clementine Hunter did in this painting, Flowing River.

– Harriet Riley, Ogden Museum Docent