Born in England in 1889 and raised in South Africa, Madge Tennent trained in France at Académies Julian from 1902 to 1906. As a young art student in Paris, she enrolled in figure-drawing classes, learned about European masterworks and classical Greek art, and studied paintings by Impressionist artists such as Édouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. She drew from these experiences over the course of her long career, frequently making references to European art traditions and classical Greek ideals of beauty while painting from her home on O‘ahu, where she and her husband raised their two children.
Tennent and her family came to Hawai‘i in 1923 for vacation as they traveled from their home in Sāmoa—where her husband, Hugh Tennent, worked as treasurer for the British Sāmoa government—to England. What was planned as a brief stopover became the start of a new life; the Tennents settled in Hawai‘i permanently. Tennent established herself as a talented artist with her skills at capturing the likeness and personality of a sitter, and she quickly identified a niche market of parents eager to acquire paintings of their children. Tennent kept busy with commissions during her early years in Hawai‘i. But as adept as she was at painting children’s portraits, the artist was unfulfilled by the endeavor and decided to shift her focus back to figure painting, regardless of commercial viability.
For nearly five decades, Tennent’s diaries, sketches, and completed artworks primarily featured figures of Hawaiian women, which she considered to embody aesthetic ideals and allowed her to explore principles of form and movement in art. Her combination of layered hatch marks and thick swaths of paint applied by palette knife to create a sense of motion across the canvas became a Tennent trademark.
These aspects that came to characterize her work were in stark contrast to the kind of pictures being made in the 1920s and 1930s in Hawai‘i, when the islands’ tourism economy relied heavily on appropriating Hawaiian imagery to recruit American visitors and residents. Scenes featuring Kānaka ‘Ōiwi (Native Hawaiians) skilled in the arts of hula, fishing, and lei-making were set against picturesque backdrops of tranquil seascapes and paradisian landscapes to create nostalgic pictures of “old Hawai‘i” for the hospitality industry. Early tourist campaigns depicted slender women sitting passively or posing seductively. Tennent had very little interest in such staged nostalgia and instead devoted her 49-year career in Hawai‘i to studying the Hawaiian matriarch as a figure who embodied the coalescence of strength and dignity. Monumental figures dressed in formal holokū (long gowns) filled her large-scale canvases.
Art critic and scholar John Charlot explained that “Hawaiian beauty, as Madge Tennent teaches us, is this combination of imposing mass with grace, of power with finesse, of form with flow.” Tennent’s writings and sketchbook notes describe an ongoing comparison of Greek and Hawaiian features and proportions. She considered Kānaka ‘Ōiwi to be “intelligent and brave past believing, bearing a strong affinity to the Greeks both in their legends and in their persons.” Tennent’s conceptions of beauty were influenced by prevailing Euro-American 20th-century thoughts about race—“these super Polynesians are only equaled by those who live in our imagination through Homer”—which romanticized aspects of Hawai‘i and its people. Such racialized stereotypes positioned Native Hawaiian women within the ethnographic gaze as “civilized without losing their eroticism,” a notion described by scholar Jane Desmond as the “ideal native.” Although Tennent’s artwork countered gender stereotypes of Native Hawaiian females as passive and docile by depicting women in motion, fully clothed in fine dresses, her notes pertaining to Hawaiian women conformed to race-based hierarchies.
The artist’s depiction of Hawaiian women was met with controversy during her lifetime. Fellow artists criticized Tennent for painting on the untreated side of the canvas and questioned her technique of layering hatch marks to build up the paint surface. Others were offended by Tennent’s departure from the slender and seductive stereotype in her portrayals of sophisticated, voluminous women. Viewers didn’t realize Tennent was depicting power and strength through the use of scale, reading her paintings as satirical pictures of overweight women. But Kānaka ‘Ōiwi philosopher and philanthropist John Dominis Holt wrote positive reviews of Tennent’s work, acknowledging her depictions of confident Hawaiian women as a welcome contrast to the plethora of tourist campaigns and racist political cartoons circulating during the early and mid-20th century. Interestingly, Tennent remained socially distant from the sitters in her paintings as an artist who moved in predominantly non-Native Hawaiian social circles, and available documentation of critical commentary doesn’t include the perspectives of her subjects. Tennent was undeterred by the mixed reception of her work and pursued exhibitions locally and on the continental United States.
Her persistence paid off. Tennent’s paintings helped overcome the visualized stereotype of Hawaiian women as passive and available. Her artworks are in museum and private collections in Hawai‘i and across the United States, including the permanent collections of the Honolulu Museum of Art; the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.; and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. By the time of her passing in 1972, Tennent was considered one of the most accomplished artists in the islands.
Detail on “Untitled,” 1950. Collection of the Honolulu
Museum of Art. Bequest of Patches Damon Holt, 2003.
Tennent’s work references European and classical Greek art traditions
Detail on “Untitled,” 1950. Collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. Charles C. Spalding, Mrs. Phyllis H. Spalding and Mr. Philip E. Spalding, Jr., 1973.
“Hawaiian Mona Lisa,” c. 1933.