Now on view in Days of Grace: California Artist Grace Hudson in Hawai‘i is an oil on canvas titled Head of Hawaiian Girl–Ilima Leis, painted in 1901. This exhibition marks the painting’s public debut—the director and curator of the Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House, which organized the show, considered the work “lost.” But when word got out that the Honolulu Museum of Art would present the exhibition, the art-collecting grapevine resulted in the painting resurfacing in the private collection of a Hawai‘i-based family. They generously agreed to lend the work to the show (and also wish to remain anonymous).
Contemplative and pensive, the solitary figure in this portrait remains elusive with her downcast gaze and brooding facial expression. She seems distant, her mind somewhere else. Hudson left San Francisco for Honolulu in January 1901 ostensibly to rest, but was compelled to pick up the brush and during her 11-month visit produced an entire body of work. Her compositions were based on a combination of photographs of individuals, preparatory sketches, and studio work with live models. Most notably, Hudson distinguished the people in her portraits through the use of ethnic markers, such as the jade bracelet in Chinese Child (Painting Number 189), and the Pomo baby carrier featured in Basket Baby–Rosa’s, or in this case, the twined ilima lei around the woman’s neck.
Even when Head of Hawaiian Girl–Ilima Leis was believed to be “lost,” curators and collectors knew about the painting because Hudson recorded it in her turn-of-the-century painting diary. At the beginning of her career, Hudson began keeping a journal in which she described each oil portrait she produced that she felt was of professional quality. She sequentially numbered these portraits, marking their unique numbers on their reverse side—and sometimes writing an accompanying “painting story” to explain the motivation behind their subjects. Hudson entered the paintings’ numbers in her painting diary, and included other data such as titles, dates of completion, dimensions, name of the model, name of the patron, and sometime a short description of the featured subject matter.
She continued this practice throughout her career, leaving an invaluable record of her commercial output. Along with the diary entries, she or her father took photos of each unframed, numbered canvas before it left her studio. Thanks to this meticulous documentation, we are able to present images of Hudson’s “lost” paintings. As great stewards of Hudson’s work, Sherrie Smith-Ferrie and Karen Holmes at the Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House have tracked nearly all of the Hawai‘i paintings, but the location of some remain a mystery more than a hundred years after initially leaving the artist’s studio.
Best known for her portraits of the Pomo Indian people living near her Ukiah, California, home, Hudson’s work in Hawai‘i maintained a figurative focus, depicting primarily Native Hawaiian and Asian women and children rendered with a preference for ethnographic detail over improvisation. Her interest in articulating the people and accoutrements of ethnicities different from her own is a consistent theme across her long career as a painter. Over the course of her stay, Hudson’s palette brightened, likely influenced by Hawai‘i’s natural environment and her personal recuperation from what was an exhausting artistic career in California.
Academically trained in the 1880s, Hudson resisted avant-garde artistic trends such as Impressionism, and instead produced a large body of work that remained consistently realistic in subject matter and style. Her Hawai‘i portraits and landscape paintings are the most significant deviation from her life-long portrayal of the Pomo Indian people. As such, this body of work stands as a fascinating interlude in the career of one of California’s most prolific late 19th-century artists.
The owner of Head of Hawaiian Girl—Ilima Leis (Painting Number 192) learned about Days of Grace through art dealers who knew the museum was in pursuit of Hudson’s “lost” paintings. The art collector replied to an inquiry saying, “I love her and have her here in my home. I had no idea it was ‘missing,’ as she was happily living with us right here on O‘ahu!”
Other paintings that remain missing include:
Katie (Painting No. 208), 1901
Oil on unknown surface
This is Hudson’s only Hawai‘i painting for which the size is unknown. She gave or sold it to her good friend, Captain C. B. Johnson, though it is not known where the painting is today. Katie, from Hilo, wears a feather lei, similar to the one depicted in Hudson’s sketch of a girl with a feather lei, displayed in the Days of Grace exhibition.
Leu Mi Gayo (the Beautiful), (Painting No. 207), 1901
Oil, probably on board
8” x 6”
The location of this portrait is currently unknown. It portrays a Chinese child very similar in appearance and dress to the girl in Painting No. 188. Hudson referred to both in her painting diary as “Wah Lee’s child,” so it is possible that the two girls were sisters.