During her half-century in Hawaii, Madge Tennent glorified its people, especially the Hawaiian woman. Though she explored many media and styles over a career spanning 70 years, her favorite creations were broad-stroked, swirling paintings of Hawaiians. Most of her canvases were large, like the full-bodied, magnificent women she portrayed. “The Hawaiians are, to me, the most beautiful people in the world—no doubt about it,” she wrote. “The Hawaiian is a work of living sculpture.” Drawing upon the Monet, Renoir, Picasso, and Gauguin artworks she encountered during her studies as a young girl in Paris, Tennent achieved a highly individualized style that, at first, bewildered Honolulu’s conservative art collectors but captivated more avant-garde inclined audiences on the United States mainland and in Europe.
This oil on canvas, which appeared in Madge Tennent’s first one-woman shows in London and Paris (1935) and the 1936 Society of American Artists’ exhibition (Rockefeller Center, New York), typifies both her style and subject matter. Built up in thick globs of paint that have been “sculpted” with a palette knife, these two Hawaiian women appear to be dancing hula under the brilliant tropical sunshine; closer inspection reveals that they are, in fact, hanging holoku dresses on the clothes line suspended above their hands. Everything in the scene—the women’s rotund forms, the holoku billowing in the wind, even the paint on the canvas—seems to whirl, expressing the innate sense of graceful motion that Tennent perceived in the Hawaiians. She has infused this vignette of everyday life with the uniquely vibrant, rhythmic, and bold vitality that continues to enchant viewers to this day.
We present today's painting thanks to Isaacs Art Center. : )
P.S. If you are in the mood for Hawaii, read about Georgia O'Keeffe's travel there. It was her 1939 voyage for pineapples and artistic freedom!