Tennent, Madge Cook (1889–1972)

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Tennent, Madge Cook (1889–1972)

British-born artist and musician who devoted decades to painting the people and culture of Hawaii. Born Madeline Grace Cook on June 22, 1889, in Dulwich, England; died on February 5, 1972, in Hawaii; daughter of Arthur Cook (an architect) and Agnes Cook (a writer and publisher); educated at Academie Julian in Paris; studied with William Bouguereau; married Hugh Cowper Tennent (an accountant), in 1915 (died 1967); children: sons Arthur Hugh Cowper Tennent (b. June 11, 1916) and Valentine Leslie Tennent (b. April 5, 1919).

Served as headmistress of art at assorted schools in Capetown, South Africa; began exhibiting her works (early 1900s); established her own art school and gave piano recitals; appointed head instructor of the Government School of Art, New Zealand; devoted herself to artistic documentation of the Hawaiian culture (1923 on).

Born Madeline Grace Cook in Dulwich, England, on June 22, 1889, Madge Cook Tennent and her younger sibling Violet Cook were raised in a creative atmosphere. Their father Arthur Cook was an architect by profession, but he also painted seascapes and was an expert woodcarver. Their mother Agnes Cook was a writer and publisher. Interested in comparative religions and the occult, Tennent's parents were an artistic couple who were charitable as well, opening their home to anyone in need. In 1894, the family moved to South Africa and established residency near Capetown.

Other than her brief attendance at an English boarding school and a French convent, Tennent received little formal education. She learned to read and write at a young age and learned to play the piano from her mother. When she was 12, her parents sent her to the Capetown School of Art, where the curriculum was limited to drawing and portraiture. As Madge's artistic talents unfolded, her parents moved the family to Paris so that she might train at the Academie Julian and study the great works of art at the Louvre Museum. Considered a prodigy, Tennent studied with master artist William Bouguereau before financial necessity forced the family to return to South Africa in 1907.

Tennent began to exhibit her work by age 18 and supported herself by serving as the head-mistress of art at various South African schools. Additionally, she performed piano recitals and established her own art school. After one of her recitals in July 1915, she became acquainted with an accountant, Hugh Cowper Tennent, and the two married in the fall of that year. Although Hugh was stationed in South Africa, the couple moved to his homeland of New Zealand and lived for a time in Woodville, where Madge gave birth to their first son, Arthur Hugh Cowper Tennent, in 1916. Tennent later moved to Inver-cargill, where she lived with her husband's parents while her husband worked in France. While Tennent was in New Zealand she accepted an appointment as the head instructor of the Government School of Art. After her husband was transferred to British Samoa, the Tennents remained in the South Pacific for six years. During that time, in 1919, their second son, Valentine Leslie Tennent, was born. In British Samoa, Tennent became absorbed with studying and painting the Polynesians, whose features she found classically beautiful.

The Tennents planned to move to England in 1923, but when their ship docked in Honolulu, the family became enamored with the people there and instead elected to remain in Hawaii, on Oahu. Tennent had a deep appreciation of the classic beauty of the Hawaiian people and developed an artistic vision that Hawaiian royalty had descended from gods—an image she sought to replicate in her art. Tennent studied the paintings of Paul Gauguin and, during her earliest years on the island, was highly influenced by his style. Her paintings also evince an admiration for Pierre Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso. Abetted by meticulous research of her subjects, she sought to document Hawaiian culture through her artwork. Tennent's personal style evolved over time as her paintings acquired a three-dimensional quality with exceptional fluidity and movement of design. She developed a unique artistic technique as she painted her subjects, especially the largely rotund and mature Hawaiians. Critics later characterized her work as "rhythm in the round." Bringing remarkable movement and grace to her paintings, Tennent sought to immortalize the beauty of the Hawaiian people. Elaine Tennent in Notable Women of Hawaii described Tennent's legacy as "inextricably woven into the tapestry of Hawaii's art history."

Madge Tennent's constitution began to fail sometime around 1950, and she suffered a series of heart attacks. Her husband also became ill with heart trouble. She was widowed on April 15, 1967. Herself in poor health, she remained at Maunalani Hospital until her death on February 5, 1972. Many of Tennent's paintings remain housed at the Tennent Art Foundation Gallery, a museum she and her husband established in 1954, located on the slope of Punchbowl Mountain on Oahu. Tennent also donated much of her work to friends and to charitable causes.


Peterson, Barbara Bennett, ed. Notable Women of Hawaii. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1984.

Gloria Cooksey , freelance writer, Sacramento, California

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