Madge Tennent

This month, please welcome friend and guest blogger, Madge Walls, sharing a story about her grandmother, artist, Madge Tennent. Thank you, Madge(s), for this delightful piece of history.

Madge Tennent
Shortly after I arrived at the University of Oregon in 1961 to begin my freshman year, I embarked on a challenge that would have been impossible in my hometown of Honolulu. I took a long slow walk diagonally across the campus, from corner to corner, looking everyone I passed in the eye and daring them to recognize me. Of course no one did, and that was the point. I wasn’t famous in Honolulu, but my grandmother was, and we shared the same name. Our family was well known, and I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized as her granddaughter. In Oregon I was blessedly anonymous for the first time in my life.

Once when a mainland college friend was working for the summer at First Hawaiian Bank, she cashed a check for my grandfather. The check read “Madge or Hugh Tennent.” Aghast, she asked the white-haired old gentleman if he was married to Madge Tennent. “Of course,” he said. “Have been for 45 years.” When his response rendered her speechless, Granddad realized she must have known me and thought I was married to my grandfather. He thought it was funny. I didn’t.

Being much older now than my grandparents were at the time of the bank incident, I look back with gratitude at the example of my groundbreaking grandmother, who set out to create a unique artistic statement, never deviated from her goal, and succeeded monumentally.

Mention the name “Madge Tennent” to a resident of Hawaii, and you’ll conjure up in his mind a kaleidoscope of swirling colors that slowly take the shape of massive Hawaiian bodies at rest, at work, and at play. In the next instant, the vibrant colors dissolve, and he sees the delicate wisps of a line drawing, white ink on black, twelve rhythmic strokes that capture the essence of young Polynesian beauty. This image in turn bursts into the bold statement of a hefty matriarch delineated by freestyle sepia “featherbrush strokes,” a term coined to describe yet another Tennent trademark style.
Often referred to as Hawaii’s Gauguin, Madge Tennent (1889-1972) was unswerving in her devotion to the beauty of the Hawaiian people with pen, brush, and palette knife. She left behind an extensive body of work that explores and preserves this unique people in a riot of color and grace of line that only genius and love could have produced.

She was born in London and raised in Capetown, South Africa, by parents who recognized her artistic talent at an early age. When she was 13 and had exhausted the possibilities for artistic schooling in Capetown, these extraordinary parents (her father owned a construction business; her mother was the editor of a women’s fashion magazine) moved the family to Paris where she studied under William Beaugereau. On the days when she was not in his studio, she haunted the galleries and museums, sketchbook in hand, absorbing everything she could from the classical and impressionistic masters.

Studio study in Paris age 13-15
Two years later they returned to Capetown, where Madge taught art and illustrated fashion magazines until she met a dashing officer in the Natal Light Brigade, Hugh Tennent. They married and returned to his home, New Zealand, where she led the haphazard life of an army camp follower until their first son Arthur was born in 1916. Hugh went off to war in Europe and returned with a seriously wounded hand, making him a candidate for government service in another arena.

The young family was sent to Western Samoa, which had become a New Zealand protectorate after the war, with Hugh as the treasurer of the territory. Their second son, Val, my father, was born there in Apia

During their six idyllic years in Samoa, Madge found endless hours to perfect her sketching technique, as well as an enthusiastic supply of languorous models to sit for her. This was the beginning of her joyous exploration of the Polynesian form.

The Tennents arrived in Honolulu with their two young sons in 1923, planning on a three-day stop before continuing on to London to enroll the boys in a proper British boarding school. Almost immediately they were introduced to members of the local artistic community, who saw her Samoan studies and begged her to stay and paint the Hawaiians. She needed no further persuasion than a good look at the fabled scenery and a nod from her husband.

 As a chartered accountant (the British equivalent of a CPA), Hugh was unable to work until he put in a year of residency. Madge supported the family by doing watercolor portraits, mostly of society children. She kept a studio downtown on Hotel Street, which she only later discovered was in the red light district. Mothers apparently thought enough of her work to overlook the neighborhood when they brought their children for their sittings, and of course they only came during the daytime.

By the end of the year, she was so sick of painting to please others that she vowed never to put herself in that position again. Hugh was fond of saying that many times the cost of her paints came near to breaking them, but he supported her enthusiastically and she never backed down.

Madge was fascinated by the Hawaiians from the beginning, but true inspiration struck when she was given a book of colored reproductions by Paul Gauguin in Tahiti. From that time on she devoted herself to the single-minded pursuit of the splendor of this remarkable people.

Tennent’s importance in the history of world art is based, then, on more than her undeniable talent. She chose to concentrate on one subject and work full-time to investigate, explore, study, and examine every facet of the female Hawaiian physique.

She evolved a unique style that was often controversial in her lifetime and freely exaggerated to make her aesthetic point. One of her favorite stories was of a society dinner party that broke up over a heated discussion of her work, including whether or not it was a downright insult to the Hawaiian people. I choose to believe that she has single-handedly preserved their unique beauty for all time.

"Larger than life," "swirling masses of color," "rhythm in the round"—these are terms that only hint at the effect of her massive oil paintings. Yet she was equally as capable of distilling the essence of Hawaiian femininity in a few fluid pen strokes.

Tennent was the first artist to see in the Hawaiians a unique artistic statement. Previous artists in the Islands tended to portray them as Europeans with dark skin and hair, dressed in native costume to make their point. By remaining true to her vision, Tennent served as an inspiration to the many artists who today have made the Hawaiian face and figure a popular and understood subject. 

Over the years she was very active in the arts community in Honolulu, taught frequent classes at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and wrote for publication on art-related subjects. Her Autobiography of An Unarrived Artist was published by Columbia University Press in 1949 and has become a collector’s item.

Major collections of her work are found at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the University of Hawaii, and the Isaacs Art Center in Waimea. She is represented at the H. M. de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. During her lifetime she exhibited tirelessly on the Mainland and in Europe.

A major oil entitled "Local Color" was prominently featured in the opening exhibit of the National Gallery for Women in the Arts in Washington, D. C., along with a collection of her portraits of Hawaiian royalty, in 1987. Tennent’s inclusion in this event received extensive national press coverage.

The greatest repository of her work, however, is in the homes of Hawaii’s old-time residents and their heirs, who received them as gifts from the artist or purchased them for a few dollars at her favorite charity events. Accepting but saddened by the fact that her work did not sell well during her lifetime, she was always tickled when she succeeded in giving it away for a worthy cause.

Just a few days before her death in 1972, Tennent summed up her philosophy of life and art for a newspaper reporter who interviewed her, frail and blind, at a private nursing home overlooking Diamond Head. He asked her, "How does it feel, Mrs. Tennent, to have your genius publicly recognized during your lifetime?"

"Genius, baloney," she muttered, with all the strength she could muster. "It was nothing but darn hard work."

Madge Tennent Walls was raised in Hawaii and raised her children on Maui, where she was a Realtor and real estate instructor for many years. She currently lives just south of Portland, Oregon, where she is a freelance indexer of nonfiction books and writes memoirs for folks who would like to preserve their life stories for the generations to come. She is also the author of an award-winning novel of Maui, Paying the Price. And no, she can’t and doesn’t paint.