Madge Tennent
1889 - 1972
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Madge Tennent was born in Dulwich, England, in 1889, to Arthur Cook, an architect and painter of landscapes, and his wife, Agnes, a writer.

By the time she had reached her teens, Madge had developed a keen interest in art. Early Tennent paintings and drawings from this period are on view in the museum, demonstrating her innate talent—a talent so pronounced that it prompted her family to move so that she might study in Paris; a venture that was short-lived due to financial difficulties of her parents.

She was also an accomplished pianist, taught by her mother, and gave regular recitals. One such recital was attended by a visiting military officer from New Zealand, Hugh Cowper Tennent, who was taken immediately with Madge and they were married in 1915.  The couple moved to New Zealand where she directed an art school and had their first son, Arthur, in 1916. When orders came, Hugh was posted to France in support of the allied effort in World War I.

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."

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.

. 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.