She was born Madeline Grace Cook in Dulwich, England, on June 22, 1889. Her father owned a construction business; her mother was the editor of a women’s fashion magazine.
When she was five she moved with her family to Cape Town, South Africa. At the age of twelve, she entered an art school in Cape Town.
The following year, her parents, who recognized and encouraged her talent, moved to Paris to enable Madeline to study there In Paris, she studied figure drawing under William Bouguereau, an experience that laid the technical foundation for her later figural drawings and paintings. (Beebe)
Two years later they returned to Cape Town, where Madge taught art and illustrated fashion magazines. She 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.
They married (1915) 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.
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. (Wageman)
Hugh went off to war in Europe and returned with a seriously wounded hand; 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, was born there in Apia.
They spent six years in Samoa. During her stay in Samoa, Tennent became fascinated with Polynesians, and while on a leave of several months in Australia, Tennent studied with Julian Ashton “and learned to draw seriously for the first time.” (Beebe)
On a trip to London to enroll the boys in a British boarding school in 1923, the Tennents arrived in Honolulu with their two young sons, planning on a three-day stop-over.
They were introduced to members of the local artistic community, who saw her Samoan studies and asked her to stay and paint the Hawaiians. They stayed.
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.
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 painting Polynesians.
Often referred to as Hawai‘i’s Gauguin, Tennent was unswerving in her devotion to the beauty of the Hawaiian people with pen, brush and palette knife. (Walls)
She was active in Hawai’i from the 1930s to the 1960s. “The Hawaiians are really to me the most beautiful people in the world … no doubt about it – the Hawaiian is a piece of living sculpture.” (Tennent; HPA)
Tennent portrayed Hawaiian women as solidly fleshed and majestic – larger than life. Her method of working with impasto – applying thick layers of paint to achieve a graceful, perfectly balanced composition – is evident in ‘Lei Queen Fantasia.’
The paint is applied in whirls in what might be called the ‘Tennent whirl’ – the colors bright and luminous. Tennent envisioned Hawaiian Kings and Queens as having descended from Gods of heroic proportion, intelligent and brave, bearing a strong affinity to the Greeks in their legends and persons. (HPA)
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. (Walls)
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.” (Walls)
Major collections of her work are found at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the University of Hawaii. In 2005, Hawai’i Preparatory Academy’s Isaacs Art Center was chosen by the Trustees of the Tennent Art Foundation to become the caretaker of the collection. (HPA) Tennent died February 5, 1972.