Born to Arthur Cook, an architect and landscape painter and his wife, Agnes, a writer. The family moved in 1894 to Cape Town, South Africa, and Madge’s parents’ efforts to promote tolerance among various races and creeds there no doubt left a lasting impression on the young Madge.
Because of Madge’s artistic promise, her family to give up their home in Cape Town so that she might study in Paris. There, she studied with William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the leading proponent of academic art. Eventually finances caused her family to move back to South Africa, where sixteen-year-old Madge led a government-sponsored art school.
Madge was also an accomplished pianist, taught by her mother, and gave regular recitals in Cape Town. One such recital was attended by a visiting military officer from New Zealand, Hugh Cowper Tennent, who was in South Africa with his regiment. After their marriage in 1915, the couple moved to New Zealand. Again Madge directed an art school, having been appointed head instructor at the Government School of Art in Woodville, the village where Madge and Hugh lived while he awaited further military orders. 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. Madge was able to devote much of her time to drawing charcoal portraits of Samoans. 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.
A renowned art educator as well as painter of modern figurative canvases of Hawaiian subjects, Madge Tennent had a distinguished career based primarily in Hawaii from where she sent paintings to the mainland United States for exhibitions in New York City and Chicago between 1930 and 1939. She was among the first artists to embrace native Hawaiians as a primary subject matter, whom she depicted as large and robust with audacious, swirling forms and colors. 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. Madge died in Honolulu in 1972.
Madge Tennent’s home is now a museum of her art. The Tennent Art Foundation Gallery is located at 203 Prospect Street in Honolulu, Hawaii. It is open Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 am to noon and on Sunday from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Hawaii State Art Museum, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, D. C.), the Tennent Art Foundation (Honolulu, Hawaii), the Isaacs Art Center (Waimea, Hawaii) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) are among the public collections holding works by Madge Tennent.