The Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii erupted throughout the 1880s and 1890s. People had “witnessed” the massive eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and its affects worldwide thanks to improved transatlantic communications. Writers including Isabella Bird, Mark Twain, and Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming sparked the public’s fascination with Hawaii’s volcanic eruptions. Photography was not yet practical, and color photography was years away. It was the Volcano School Painters who offered the world a front-row view of nature in her wildest moments.
Documenting erupting volcanoes was not for the timid. The French Impressionists and other schools had already embraced the art of painting en plein air using natural light. But the Volcano School Painters brought the concept to new levels. Traveling to find the right viewpoint was a grueling physical ordeal that could take days. Temperatures were high and the subjects were temperamental. The air was anything but fresh with volcanoes belching toxic sulfuric gases.
Despite these challenges, many artists flocked to the volcanoes. They sketched rapidly out of necessity, and then returned to their studios to finish painting from memory. Landscape painting had been gaining in popularity through the 1800s. Painters like Thomas Moran found his work in Yellowstone a career-making endeavor that was also highly lucrative.
The Volcano School Painters saw the opportunities presented by the deity Pele, the goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes in Hawaiian Mythology. The Volcano School Painters included more than a dozen artists. Following are just a few of our favorites.
French born Jules Tavernier (1844-1849) is considered the most famous of the Volcano School Painters. As temperamental and explosive as the volcanoes he painted, he sparked the movement into being. He had first distinguished himself as a painter in France and then London. In 1872 he came to New York with his friend, Paul Frenzeny for a prestigious assignment from Harper’s Weekly, during which they documented Indian culture on General Smith’s cross-country expedition.
Their journey ended in San Francisco in 1874 where Tavernier became a vibrant part of the area’s emerging art scene. He married and lived a lavish lifestyle that deserves its own post. Due to his fiery temper and growing debts, he and his wife fled to Hawaii.
Tavernier developed a studio in Hawaii with fellow San Francisco artist Joseph Strong. Along with Charles Furneaux, they formed the Volcano School. Tavernier produced nearly 100 images of volcanoes in oils and pastels.
Among his many volcano paintings, in 1886, he painted a cyclorama of Kilauea’s erupting crater. The 360-degree canvas stood 11 feet high and 90 feet long. Much like Monet’s water lilies, it was meant to be experienced standing inside. The cyclorama toured the islands, but was claimed by a creditor before it went on tour through the United States and London. It is believed to be sitting somewhere in storage to this day.
Scottish born Constance Frederica Gordon-Cumming (1837 –1924) was one of the first artists to paint active volcanoes when she arrived in Hilo in 1879. She was a renowned artist and writer who travelled the world. She found her subjects in the countries she travelled. Her goal was to produce one sketch or painting each day.
Not surprisingly, she was a friend of Isabella Bird and Marianne North, the noted botanical artist. North also travelled throughout Asia and Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and America. She painted volcanoes as well, but from a distance. was another friend of Gordon-Cumming.
Her book on travels in Hawaii, Fire Fountains: The Kingdom of Hawaii, was published in 1883.
Boston born Charles Furneaux (1835–1913) was an art instructor. In 1880, he moved to Hawaii, where taught art at private schools including Punahou. He befriended members of the Hawaiian royal family including King Kalakaua and received several commissions from them.
His most famous paintings were of Hawaiian subjects, particularly erupting volcanoes. He had arrived in Hilo in 1880, just in time to witness the 1880-81 eruption of Mauna Loa. Furneaux spent the next two years sketching and photographing its lava flows. He worked quickly gathering visual references then headed back to his studio to paint larger, complete versions. His paintings were often used to illustrate books and articles about the eruptions.
Japan born Ogura Yonesuke Itoh (1870–1940) jumped ship in Hawaii at age 25. He hid from the authorities in Punchbowl Crater. It seemed inevitable that he would become a member of the Volcano School Painters. Inspired by Jules Tavernier, Itoh is considered the first Japanese artist to produce works with Hawaiian themes. Most of his paintings were unsigned, most likely because he was avoiding authorities.
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