Issue 5.5: October/November 2002

Larger Than Life


by Virginia Wageman
photos by Dana Edmund

Untitled pastel sketch

In the annals of Hawaii art, the work of painter Madge Tennent looms large. Tennent was among the first artists to embrace Native Hawaiians as a primary subject matter, and her influence was increased by her association with the Honolulu Academy of Arts in its early days, where she was a frequent lecturer, and where she was included in most of the Academy’s early group shows.

Tennent’s work has often been compared with that of Gauguin. In the 1960s, Honolulu Advertiser art critic Juliette May Fraser, herself an artist of some repute, said that she "would rather have one Madge Tennent painting than ten by Gauguin." Tennent painted her Hawaiian subjects as she saw them, large and robust, in a manner that some initially criticized as unflattering. At times, she was accused of "violating nature and the Hawaiians." Nevertheless, her work eventually gained international acclaim and was exhibited around the world until she stopped painting at the age of seventy-six.

Many of Tennent’s better-known paintings, such as Hawaiian Bride, 1939, exhibit the exuberance and abandonment with which she generally approached depictions of Hawaiian subjects, with audacious, swirling forms and colors. Earlier works, like Hawaiian Pattern, 1927, derive from a more modernist mode of painting, with composition blocked out in lyrical lines and colors. The magnificently patterned background owes much to Matisse and other neoimpressionists, indicating again that Tennent was very much aware of the art of her time.

Hawaiian Bride, 1939

Today, works by Tennent are hard to come by, though Cedar Street Galleries (808-589-1580) has a fair number to tempt collectors. Paintings by Tennent may also be found in the collections of The Honolulu Advertiser, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Although even many longtime Honolulu residents are unaware of it, an unassuming museum devoted to Tennent’s work sits on the slopes of Punchbowl. The museum, designed in 1953 by renowned Hawaii architect Vladimir Ossipoff (who designed the lobbies at Honolulu International Airport, as well as many other prominent Island buildings), was Tennent’s home until her death in 1972. The home exemplifies Ossipoff’s aim of bringing the outdoors indoors and is surrounded by two acres of gardens—once lush with jasmine, honeysuckle, pomegranate, plumeria and mock orange—that afford magnificent views of Pearl Harbor and the Waianae Mountains.

Open just two hours a day, (except Mondays, when it is closed altogether), the museum is run by Tennent’s son, Arthur, and his wife, Elaine. (Their own son, incidentally, is baritone Leslie Tennent, who makes his home in Germany and travels the world as a guest soloist for symphonies and operatic productions.) Admission to the museum is free, but contributions toward its upkeep are welcome.

Self-Portrait, age 20

Madge Tennent was born in Dulwich, England, in 1889, to Arthur Cook, an architect and painter of landscapes, and his wife, Agnes, a writer. The family moved in 1894 to Cape Town, South Africa, and her parents’ efforts to promote tolerance among various races and creeds there no doubt left a lasting impression on the young Madge.

By the time she had reached her teens, Madge had developed a keen interest in art. Early Tennent paintings and drawings from this period (for example, French Model, 1904, her first painting in oil, as well as an exquisite charcoal drawing of a nude model, made when Madge was just thirteen) are on view in the museum, demonstrating her innate talent—a talent so pronounced that it prompted her family to give up their home in Cape Town so that she might study in Paris. There, she trained with William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the leading proponent of academic art. Eventually, financial concerns caused her family to move back to South Africa, where sixteen-year-old Madge led a government-sponsored art school.

She was also an accomplished pianist, taught by her mother, and gave regular recitals in Cape Town. One such recital was attended by a visiting military officer from New Zealand, Hugh Cowper Tennent, who was in South Africa with his regiment. After their marriage in 1915, the couple moved to New Zealand. Again Madge directed an art school, having been appointed head instructor at the Government School of Art in Woodville, the village where Madge and Hugh lived while he awaited further military orders. Their first son, Arthur, was born there in 1916. When orders came, Hugh was posted to France in support of the allied effort in World War I.

Hawaiian Girl, 1929

Hugh returned from France in 1917 with a badly wounded arm. An accountant by trade, he was offered a position as treasurer to the government of British Samoa, which he chose to accept. The Tennents lived in Samoa for six years, during which time Madge was able to indulge a fascination with the native people of Polynesian descent. Their second son, Valentine, was born in 1919. Because Madge had household help, she was able to devote much of her time to drawing portraits of Samoans in charcoal.

In 1923, en route to England to enroll their sons in school, the Tennents stopped over in Honolulu. It was to have been a brief stop, but they soon were persuaded by members of the local cultural elite, including poet Don Blanding, to stay on. Madge was immediately taken with the Hawaiian people.

She wrote in the introduction to a 1936 exhibition catalog that "the Hawaiians, an ancient race whose beginnings are hidden in Eastern Asia, have carried the finest features of Polynesia from their misty past into their short but eventful known history. Hawaiian Kings and Queens were supermen and superwomen. As though descended from gods of heroic proportion, the Royalty in Hawaii were almost always over six feet tall and had weight to match. Intelligent and brave past believing, bearing a strong affinity to the Greeks both in their legends and in their persons, their strange perfection increasing always with the various racial mixtures, these super Polynesians are only equaled by those who live in our imagination through Homer."

While Hugh established an accountancy practice, Madge supported the family by drawing portraits of the children of kamaaina families. She also wrote critically about art and lectured frequently in Honolulu. Particularly relevant to artists today is advice she gave to the state Legislature in 1968: "The greatest problem for all artists in Honolulu is to convince their public, both aesthetically and financially, that local born art is as important as that of visiting contemporary artists imported at considerable expense to make advertising paintings of Hawaii for the delectation of Mainland art lovers."

She also wrote: "There is one supreme virtue in the approach and study of art from the intellectual, as opposed to the emotional standpoint, and that is mental courage. No art lover can really understand Art without it; and no artist can ever attain living Art with this gallant virtue lacking."

There is a saying among people who make their home in the Islands: "Lucky we live Hawaii." Tennent once said, "I am so lucky to have the Hawaiians to express." Hawaii, too, is lucky indeed to have had Madge Tennent.

Tennent Art Foundation Gallery
203 Prospect St.
Open Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-noon;
Sun., 2-4 p.m.
(808) 531-1987