Opening this week is Charles Furneaux and the Sublime, which debuts a major museum acquisition—an untitled painting by Charles Furneaux (pictured above) that underwent careful conservation by Larry and Rie Pace. It’s a pleasure to finally be able to show it to the public for the first time, along with recent artwork gifts, and spectacular pieces on loan to present examples of Furneaux’s small on-site field sketches, his dramatic large-scale renderings of the eruptions, and vibrant landscape scenes.

Furneaux’s fiery Hawai‘i volcano scenes have intrigued viewers since he first began painting them in the late 19th century. But he started off his career in his hometown of Boston, where he did landscapes and was a drawing instructor. It was William T. Brigham, the first curator-turned-director at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, who invited Furneaux to Hawai‘i to witness its volcanoes after seeing the artist’s paintings in a Boston Art Club exhibition in the late 1800s.

Arriving in the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1880, Furneaux made his way to the Hilo district of Hawai‘i Island just in time to witness the 1880-81 eruption of Mauna Loa. For nearly two years, Furneaux documented the lava flows through photographs and field sketches produced in his sketchbook and on small canvases. He became well-known among Hilo residents for propping up his camera tripod and canvases alongside the flows, working quickly on location to gather visual references. Back in his studio he drew from those references to produce larger-scale, theatrical depictions of the volcano. Authors writing about the eruptions rarely published the artist’s volcano photos, favoring instead, to reproduce the drama of Furneaux’s colorful oil paintings as illustrations to accompany their text.

By the time Furneaux sailed to Hawai‘i, erupting views of Kīlauea, another active volcano on Hawai‘i Island, were already among the most iconic images associated with the Kingdom, first through expedition illustrations and later through the texts of travel writers and novelists. One of the earliest western artists to record Kīlauea was expedition illustrator Robert Dampier, who was on the H.M.S. Blonde’s tragic journey from England to Hawai‘i to bring home the beloved ali‘i King Liholiho (King Kamehameha II) and Queen Kamāmalu, who had passed away of measles during their official trip to London. Among Dampier’s now famous illustrations and subsequent paintings derived from his time in Hawai‘i, his rendering of Kīlauea served as the frontispiece of the 1826 official narrative detailing the British expedition in Voyage of H.M.S. Blonde to the Sandwich Islands, in the years 1824-1825.

A few years later, the British missionary William Ellis published his impression of Kīlauea titled Volcano in the Sandwich Islands in the Polynesian Researches Vol III, and Titian Ramsey Peale, a naturalist and illustrator on the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, painted Kilauea by Night, a painting now housed in the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. Fascination with Hawai‘i’s volcanic eruptions was also kindled by writers such as Isabella Bird, Mark Twain, and the Scottish travel writer and self-taught artist Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming. This is in part due to notions of Romanticism, a philosophy primarily concerned with the individual’s ability to recognize the astonishing and overwhelming power of nature.

Like other artists associated with what has come to be known as the Volcano School painters, Furneaux’s work exemplifies a fusion between European Sublime aesthetics, Romantic landscape, and American landscape traditions, characterized by scenic depictions of the natural world—in turbulence or grandeur—and humanity’s perilous relationship to nature in a time of expedition. Volcano School painters celebrated natural wonders of the world, an attribute shared with artists rooted in the Hudson River School.

Artists of both schools shared a preference for awe-inspiring natural phenomena rendered with established painterly conventions that imply divinity in nature. These ideas are linked to religious ideas of the time, including Manifest Destiny, and an impulse for scientific exploration. A 19th-century doctrine, Manifest Destiny was used to justify American expansion across the North American continent. The displacement and decimation of Native American people were considered part of the divine fulfillment of America’s political destiny to stretch from coast to coast. These highly problematic religious views permeated territorial expansion campaigns into Texas and Oregon.

In art, these principles were aestheticized into compelling landscapes of nature’s most tempting but dangerous, intriguing but inaccessible formations such as raging waterfalls and molten lava flows. Distinct among picturesque landscape styles, painters working with ideas of the sublime feature elements of nature’s potential danger for heightened drama. Furneaux’s late 19th-century compositions are among the most sublime depictions of smoldering lava pools, lightning bolts over the ocean, steaming vents and heavy clouds signaling the active presence of the volcano.

On view: Charles Furneaux and the Sublime, Sept. 22, 2016–March 12, 2017

Charles Furneaux (American, 1835 ‑ 1913)
Untitled, 1888
Oil on masonite
Made possible by support from the William Harrison & Mary Sophia Rice Acquisition Fund, Michael & Linda Horikawa and from the Collection of Harry Miura, 2013