Harold Meade Mott-Smith was born in Honolulu in 1872 into an artistic family. His father, John Mott-Smith (1824-1895) was the first dentist to set up a permanent practice in the Kingdom of Hawaii. John Mott-Smith was also a politician and diplomat and served on the Board of Education in Honolulu. Edan Hughes indicates that John Mott-Smith designed the silver crown worn by Lunalilo. In 1866 John gave up the dental practice to become editor of the newspaper, Hawaiian Gazette. As Editor, he used the paper to defend the monarchy, which gained him favor with Kamehameha V, he also became an intimate friend to Kalakaua and Lili'uokalani. On December 21, 1869 he was appointed to the powerful post of Minister of Finance in the cabinet. He served until August 25, 1872. On December 4, 1876 he was appointed Minister of Interior, serving until July 3, 1878. In 1878 he went to Washington, DC to promote the interests of the Kingdom. John Mott-Smith stayed in the East, taking up residence in Boston, on Newbury Street until 1891 when he returned to Honolulu. By establishing himself in Boston, John may have inadvertently sown the seeds for his son Harold's relationship to the Boston Art and cultural scene.
In 1859 John Mott-Smith married Ellen Dominis Paty, the daughter of an old, prominent Honolulu family. Ellen carried the Dominis name due a “hanai” adoption into the family of Liliuokalani and John Dominis; which would have made her part of Hawaiian nobility. John and Ellen Mott-Smith had seven children. As the first and only dentist to set up a permanent practice in Honolulu, John had become wealthy, his investments in sugar increased his fortune. His wealth and influence further increased when he dropped the practice of dentistry and took up politics. As influential residents of Honolulu, it was assumed their children would attend the best of schools. Of the seven siblings, two became academically trained artists. Daughter May Mott-Smith (b- 1879) went abroad for study at the Academie Colarossi in Paris. As a mature painter she participated
in exhibitions and art clubs from Boston to San Francisco.
John and Ellen Mott-Smith's son, Harold, also studied in the French academic tradition taking in three years at the Academie Julian, starting his studies there right after Hawaiian born painter, Howard Hitchcock, had finished. There he worked under the skilled teachers J.P. Laurens and Benjamin Constant. In 1896, Harold left Paris and returned briefly to the US to marry Miss Jennie Ormsby Yates. The newly married couple then returned to Paris for two more years while Harold continued his art studies. Before leaving Paris for the second time in 1898, Harold's work was accepted for exhibition in the Paris Salon, which is an honor, among Hawaiian born artists, he shared only with Hitchcock. Harold and Jenny moved back to Honolulu in 1898 and stayed there until 1902.
Harold indicated in an interview "I returned in 1898 (to Honolulu), engaged in trust and investment business, made a pot of money; went back to Paris in 1902 to continue art studies..." While in Hawaii, however, Harold continued to paint and by 1901 he was the president of the Kilohana Art League, an organization of Hawaii artists founded by Howard Hitchcock. These two artists, born in Hawaii and trained in France around the same time must have remained close friends as the Records of the Kilohana Art League for 1901 list H.M. Mott Smith as its President, with Howard Hitchcock (founder) as Vice President.
For American artists, such as Hitchcock and Harold Mott-Smith, participation in the Paris Salons, annual exhibitions sanctioned by the Paris establishment, was a ticket to social acceptance and commercial potential. There John Singer Sargent found a receptive audience for his full-length portraits, initially mocked by Americans. Mary Cassatt first came to the attention of Degas at the Salon of 1874; conservative artists such as Childe Hassam adapted impressionist techniques observed in works hung at the Salon. Americans Edmund Tarbell, Frank Benson and Theodore Robinson, among others, inoculated the American art establishment with impressionism and further developed their own regional style after returning to America.
Harold Mott-Smith not only exhibited at the Paris Salon, but in 1894 two of his paintings were accepted for exhibition in the Boston Art Club. Impressionism emerged as an artistic style in France in the 1860s. Major exhibitions of French impressionist works in Boston and New York in the 1880s introduced the style to the American public. Some of the first American artists to paint in an impressionistic mode, such as Theodore Robinson, did so in the late 1880s after visiting France. Others, such as Childe Hassam, took notice of the increasing numbers of French impressionist works at American exhibitions.
Mott-Smith's relationship to the Boston cultural scene was established early on when Harold's father John left Hawaii he took up residence on Newbury Street, in the heart of the Boston art scene. The biography of Dr. John Mott-Smith by Robert M. Gibson states that he went to Boston sometime in the early 1880's to establish a home and schooling for his children. He continued to be involved in the politics of Hawaii through the delegation of that Kingdom to Washington, DC. He also returned to Hawaii on several occasions but settled permanently in Boston by 1891. Regarding his son Harold I will quote from Dr. Gibson's book, "Dr. John Mott-Smith: Hawaii's First Royal Dentist and Last Royal Ambassador" :
"Harold inherited his father's ability to acquire a wide range of skills simply by participating in activities. His talent in art grew without instruction from childhood. He studied cello with Fritz Gieser of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but gave it up when he enter MIT in mechanical engineering. He soon changed to chemistry, studying under Willis Whitney. One day, using hydrofluoric acid, Harold made a glass etching of a professor and presented it to Whitney, who was so impressed he urged the young man to switch to architecture.
Harold did so, but again found himself restless, filled with inarticulate ambitions. he began frequenting galleries and museums, felt imposed upon by Geisler who still wanted him to return to the cello, and finally fled to Paris. After studying with a variety of teachers, he exhibited pen drawings and paintings in a successful private show. He had made his mark in Paris. Then he abruptly returned to the United States, became president of a bicycle business and married."
Harold's grandson notes that, " Within a few years, however, Harold returned to Paris to exhibit his wife's portrait in 1896. [It hung in a salon in Paris for several years, was shipped to the United States and displayed in the Schenectady Museum for quite a while, and finally returned to my mother sometime in the early 1960's. It now hangs in my basement living room. It is entitled "La triste nouvelle," is approximately 63 inches high and 51 inches wide, a magnificent painting, one of his best in my opinion.] He was elected vice-president of the American Art Association but quit to move to Hawaii, where he went into investment banking. In a short time he gravitated again to the arts, completing a series of paintings of the Hawaiian Kings, put on display in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu…”
Harold's training in France and his exposure to the regional style of impressionism he would have seen in the Boston galleries must have contributed to his own style. This painting, created in Hawaii, certainly shows the look of the Boston masters, Tarbell and Benson. For example, Mott Smith's use of bright mid day light playing on the white dress, contrasted with Jennie's luminous parasol certainly suggests Benson's technique of using the same bright hues to convey the intensity of the middle day light. Mott-Smith's relationship to the Boston cultural scene was established early on when Harold's father John left Hawaii, according to the grandson, he took up residence on Newbury Street, in the heart of the Boston art scene.
This work depicts, under a nearly cloudless Hawaiian sky, a painting of Diamond Head within a painting of Diamond Head, but the painting is equally as interesting as a genre work. We see the artist and his wife just after their arrival in Honolulu from Paris. The date of this work would be some time in 1898, since the couple had just arrived in Honolulu, and by 1899, the newly built and imposing James B. Castle residence would already dominate the beach at the right side of the composition. In this scene, Jennie focuses her attention on her blue book, a small diversion, and she wears a dress that would have been fashionable in 1898. Conversely, Harold is physically engaged, working intently on his painting and faces 180 degrees away from Jennie. The tension and contrast created by the artist and his wife focusing their attention in opposite directions creates a virtual diagonal line running parallel to the beach stretching into the distance. The light and dark umbrellas, one a delicate French parasol and the other a painter's working tool and the figures facing opposite directions suggest the harmonious combination of Yin and Yang. All these elements cooperate to create a satisfying, closed composition in the central area of the painting.
This tale has a bittersweet ending, however... Harold and Jennie left Hawaii in 1902 to return to Paris where he would they would start a family and he developed other interests besides painting . Arriving in San Francisco, they left most of his Hawaii paintings in storage where they were safe until 1906 when the Great San Francisco Earthquake and fire destroyed most of the city and the cultural treasures kept there. Nearly all of Harold's Hawaii paintings were destroyed. Perhaps he had planned to return to make an exhibition of these works in the States, but once they were gone, this would never happen. Only a handful of the Hawaiian paintings have survived.Read More