Paradise at Home: Reconsidering Nineteenth-Century Hawaiian Landscape Paintings

Written by guest author Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt. Dr. Weichbrodt is an Assistant Professor of Art and Covenant College in Chattanooga, Tennessee.


As a child growing up in Honolulu, I formed early and distinct opinions about what Hawai’i should look like in pictures. At the Honolulu Museum of Art, I dismissed eighteenth century paintings and engravings that seemed intent on clumsy anthropological renderings. I gave formal early-nineteenth century portraits only a passing glance, and I laughed off mid-twentieth century posters with blonde hula dancers. But late-nineteenth century landscape paintings? Those made me swoon.

Jules Tavernier’s gold and violet sunset over Diamond Head and his glowing, almost neon depictions of volcanic eruptions at Kilauea commanded the gallery. Lush and painterly, they depicted Hawai’i as almost otherworldly in its beauty. I saw my home in these paintings, and I felt a rush of pride for being intimately familiar with such an exquisite place. Somehow, the untouched, mysterious qualities Tavernier evoked in his paintings co-existed easily with my very modern existence in crowded Honolulu.

“This,” I thought, “is what my paradise looks like.”

Years later, in graduate school, I returned to these paintings by Jules Tavernier and his contemporaries – the so-called Volcano School – as objects of study. As a dutiful graduate student, I set out to be highly critical of these paintings. Bolstered by a knowledge of Romanticism and postcolonial theory, I anticipated a dismissal of my former favorites as precursors to the touristic exploitation of Hawai’i, a vision of “paradise” that disenfranchised native peoples and ignored the cultural reality of American colonization. Instead, what I found sent me down an unexpected but delightful research trail.

The Volcano School Painters and Nineteenth-Century Hawai’i

The Volcano School painters – visiting California-based artists Charles Furneaux, Joseph D. Strong Jr., and Jules Tavernier – produced scores of exotic landscapes that belied the social and political tensions faced by the reigning Hawaiian monarch, King David Kalakaua, in the 1880s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the market for such artworks consisted primarily of white American land and business owners who were profiting from the sugar cane industry while chaffing against Kalakaua’s rule.

What surprised me, however, was that Kalakaua himself was also commissioning sweeping landscapes from the same artists. He gave some of the paintings away as gifts to foreign monarchs and used others to decorate his new home, ‘Iolani Palace. Was Kalakaua too naïve to understand the imperialist implications of these paintings? Was he blindly following western aesthetic tastes of the late nineteenth century?

To put it simply: no.

Kalakaua’s patronage of these American painters functioned as just one part of a large scale, two-pronged effort by the monarch to resist colonization. On the one hand, Kalakaua invested in and elevated traditional Hawaiian practices throughout his reign. He pushed to revive Hawaiian dancing and ceremonial chants that had been banned earlier by missionaries and he actively worked to sustain traditional knowledge and genealogies by erecting preservation committees and even publishing his own version of Hawaiian folklore. Lili’uokalani, the king’s sister and future queen of the Kingdom, expressed great awareness of the nationalist impulse behind Kalakaua’s cultural initiatives.  In her memoirs, she wrote about her brother’s hula and chant-filled coronation ceremony: “[T]he coronation celebration has been a great success. The people from the country and from the other islands went back to their homes with a renewed sense of the dignity and honor involved in their nationality.” The royal family deliberately chose to foreground indigenous arts in an effort to consolidate the pride and support of their native subjects.

Hula dancers at Kalakaua’s Jubilee in 1886, Hawaii State Archives

On the other hand, Kalakaua sought to disprove accusations of Hawaiian inferiority by adopting and adapting European visual codes of power. In addition to commissioning western-style paintings and public sculpture, he built the Italianate style ‘Iolani Palace, where he conducted lavish royal pageantry. But these seemingly European practices were frequently infused with distinctly Hawaiian character. Thus his coronation ceremony – held ten years after his reign began — included hula; his jubilee — actually his fiftieth birthday party — included traditional mele chants; and ‘Iolani Palace, though western in architecture, was filled with Hawaiian woods and feather work. Kalakaua was not simply imitating European powers; he purposefully worked to construct a hybrid visual culture.

It is important to recognize that, as images, the landscape paintings that Kalakaua commissioned from the Volcano School artists also operated differently than those purchased by white residents with business or political interests. While Kalakaua’s choices emphasize the fertility and malleability of his tropical kingdom, the Volcano School’s other paintings evoke a wild, virgin land.

Joseph D. Strong, Japanese Laborers on Spreckelsville Plantation, 1885, oil on canvas, private collection.

In Joseph D. Strong’s 1885 painting Japanese Laborers on Sprecklesville Plantation, he depicts a family completing their midday meal in the middle of a sugar cane field. The cane is actively being harvested by other laborers, while the cerulean slice of ocean, majestic green mountains, fluffy white clouds, and sweeping sky emphasize the warm climate and natural abundance of this tropical locale.

Jules Tavernier, Kilauea At Dusk, c. 1887, oil on canvas, private collection.

In his 1887 painting Kilauea at Dusk, by contrast, Jules Tavernier depicts an almost primordial landscape: hot red lava slashes across the black, craggy surface of the earth, spurting up in incandescent sprays. A solid, rocky outcropping anchors the left hand side of the panoramic composition, with an indigenous lehua tree silhouetted against the blue-green and red-orange haze that suffuses the entire canvas. Nature’s majestic, powerful presence awes – and perhaps even terrifies – the viewer. Tavernier’s composition, use of dramatic color, and emphasis on the sweeping scale of the landscape echo paintings of the American West by Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, works intended to inspire Romantic reverence of untouched nature.

Thus, Kalakaua’s commission differs both in function – the Spreckelsville canvas was given to the Japanese Emperor as a diplomatic gift – and content from Tavernier’s volcano scene, which was owned by a local businessman. Both claim to represent the “Paradise of the Pacific,” but define it in significantly distinct ways.

Competing Notions of “Paradise”

This divergence is the focus of my current research. In particular, I am interested in the two competing notions of “paradise” at work in both these paintings and late-nineteenth century writings about Hawai’i. On the one hand, “Paradise” could invoke a Romantic position, one that celebrated the landscape’s wildness and equated nature in its pure state with the lost Garden of Eden. On the other hand, Kalakaua’s commissions reflect what environmental historian Carolyn Merchant calls the “Recovery Narrative”: a story of humans reversing the effects of the biblical Fall by turning desolate and distant wilds into productive, cultivated space. The Recovery Narrative emphasizes the Garden, a tamed land in which Adam fulfilled the Creation Mandate of subduing the earth. I plan to trace the changing usage of the term “paradise” from first western contact with Hawai’i, through Kalakaua’s own usage in his state sponsored newspaper, Paradise of the Pacific, and in connection to the emerging late-nineteenth century phenomenon of adventure tourism.  

As I’ve spent time back in Honolulu this summer, I’ve reflected again on the contradictions of living in and loving this place. My family is not ethnically Hawaiian. We are here because of Japanese immigration driven by the sugar cane industry and the United States’ twentieth-century military presence. My mother shops at Costco, the local drugstore is now a Walgreens, and there is a Starbucks down the street. And yet, my brothers and I can still be on an isolated ridge hike within ten minutes and my sons can be the only ones splashing in the ocean on a strip of beach by my parents’ house. The sunsets really do glow like jewels, traces of the island’s primordial origins are evident everywhere, and the native flora are abundant and beautiful. Perhaps, in the end, it is the co-existence and even interconnectedness of these things that defines Hawai’i for me. The Volcano School painters’ range of images – of Hawai’i as garden and Hawai’i as wilderness – echo my own experience of my paradise home.


Feature Image: Jules Tavernier, Sunrise Over Diamond Head, oil on canvas, 1888, Honolulu Academy of Arts. Public Domain image found on Wikipedia.


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