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Kamehameha the Great, King of the Sandwich Islands, ca. 1816

Kamehameha the Great, King of the Sandwich Islands, ca. 1816

Kamehameha the Great, King of the Sandwich Islands, ca. 1816. Oil on canvas, 9 7/8 x 8 in. Anonymous copy, Chinese, after Ludwig Choris. Yekaterinoslav, Russia 1795-1828 Veracruz, Mexico. Inscribed along bottom: TAMM AHAMMAHA. Gift of John Coffin Jones, Jr., 1818.

This portrait was the first recorded gift of a painting to the Boston Athenæum, presented on June 18, 1818 by John Coffin Jones, Jr. It was an exotic present for the eleven-year-old institution to receive, and perhaps its exotic nature had something to do with the curious fact that the portrait was never included in the Athenæum’s annual exhibitions. It nevertheless remains one of the more intriguing highlights of the collection.

The Athenæum’s portrait is an anonymous Chinese copy of a drawing of King Kamehameha, made by Ludwig (or Louis) Choris on the island of Oahu in 1816.[1] Russian by birth, Choris was the official artist aboard the Russian Navy’s brig Rurick, which visited Hawaii during its Pacific expedition of 1815-1818. Trained as a draughtsman (probably in Moscow), Choris joined many explorations to exotic locales and recorded their geography and inhabitants. His competent drawings of native peoples were remarkably direct and without condescension; he was a keen observer with a genuine curiosity. (His curiosity could well have played a part in his murder by a highwayman in Mexico in 1828.) The Athenæum's portrait is not unique: Choris made multiple drawings of Kamehameha in Hawaii, of which innumerable copies were created later by others. This is one of the earliest and the best preserved of the known copies after Choris.[2]

After landing in Hawaii in November 1816, Captain Otto von Kotzebue of the Rurick eventually persuaded the Hawaiian king to sit to Choris. King Kamehameha I (c. 1758-1819) had become ruler of Hawaii in 1810 after years of bloody battles that extended his control from island to island. Halfway through his sitting to Choris, however, the king unexpectedly changed his clothes:

[Kamehameha] asked me to leave him alone an instant. Imagine my surprise on seeing this monarch display himself in the costume of a sailor; he wore blue trousers, a red waistcoat, a clean white shirt and a necktie of yellow silk. I begged him to change his dress; he refused absolutely and insisted on being painted as he was.[3]

Kamehameha obviously preferred western dress, whereas Choris wished to present him in the traditional black kapa robe, and both versions by Choris have survived (figs. XX & XX).[4] Choris’s drawings of the king were so admired in Hawaii that some soon found their way abroad. One had apparently reached Manila long before the artist himself did two years later; and when Choris finally arrived there aboard the Rurick in December of 1818, he found his portrait being copied en masse. (Astonishingly, this was six months after the Athenæum had received the gift.) Adelbert von Chamisso, the French botanist of the expedition, wrote in Manila that “American merchants had already gained possession of [Choris’s] picture and had had many copies made for commerce in the Chinese painting factories.”[5] It is likely that the Athenæum’s portrait was one of these early copies produced in Manila, where John Coffin Jones, Jr., may have stopped on his way home. Although there is no proof for this conjecture, the Chinese character “li,” brushed in ink on one of the wooden strips nailed to the back of the stretchers of the Athenæum’s copy, strongly suggests a Chinese involvement, if not the exact place of origin.[6]

The son of a prominent merchant and statesman of the same name, John Coffin Jones, Jr. (1796-1861), was somewhat less illustrious than his father but nevertheless well connected in Boston. In December 1816, he began his first voyage to Hawaii aboard the Paragon, a trading ship for the firm of Marshall & Wildes. The ship arrived in the Sandwich Islands by early summer of 1817, and sometime in the following year Jones acquired the portrait that he would present to the Athenæum in June 1818. The distant Sandwich Islands were of much interest to Bostonians in the late 1810s: Hawaii, midway between America’s west coast and China, was fast emerging as an important port for New England’s China traders as well as for whalers, and the reports on the inhabitants of the islands inevitably stirred a missionary zeal. In 1820 Jones was appointed the first unofficial commercial agent of the United States in Hawaii, a somewhat vague position he filled until 1839 with more than a modicum of frontier lawlessness.

Since Captain Cook’s “discovery” of the islands in 1778, Hawaii had seen an increasing number of European and American vessels arrive at its shores, eager to take part in the lucrative trade. Soon the verdant isle would be overrun by the West’s mercantile ambition and proselytizing efforts. The Athenæum’s portrait is deceptively serene, from an era soon to end with Kamehameha’s death in 1819, with only a faint echo of the already bustling trans-Pacific trade that brought it to the Athenæum.

Hina Hirayama from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 209-211. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]The author thanks Jennifer Saville, Curator of Western Art, Honolulu Academy of Arts, and DeSoto Brown, Collections Manager, Archives, Bishop Museum, Honolulu, for assisting with research for this essay.On Choris in Hawaii, see David W. Forbes, Encounters with Paradise: Views of Hawaii and Its People, 1778-1941 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press and Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1992).
[2]The Athenæum’s portrait had been erroneously considered an original by Choris as late as 1925, as in Stephen W. Phillips, in his “Oil Painting of Kamehameha I at the Boston Atheneum [sic.], Boston,” Annual Report of the Hawaiian Historical Society 34 (1925): 40-41.
[3]Jean Charlot, Choris and Kamehameha (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1958), 17. The first of the many portraits of the king produced by Choris is the small oval portrait in the collection of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, in which the king appears in a black cloak (fig. XX). The drawing shows, however, incised lines made by Choris as he traced the drawing to make copies, and the incised lines correspond to the red vest version; it is likely that Choris subsequently altered the Academy portrait by painting the black robe over the western red vest.
[4]When Choris’s image of Kamehameha was first published in 1821 in Captain Kotzebue’s narrative, the king wore the western red vest, as in the Athenæum’s portrait, but when Choris published his own account in 1822, the king was in the altered “manteau noir” version. Otto von Kotzebue, Entdeckungs-Reise…in den Jahren 1815…1818…auf dem Schiffe “Rurik” (Weimar: Hoffman, 1821), which was translated and published as A Voyage of Discovery…in the Years 1815-1818…in the Ship “Rurick” (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1822); Louis Choris, Voyage pittoresque autour du monde  (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1822).
[5]Adelbert von Chamisso, A Voyage around the World with the Romanzov Exploring Expedition in the Years 1815-1818 in the Brig “Rurik,” Captain Otto von Kotzebue, trans. and ed. Henry Kratz (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986), 124.
[6]Manila as the likely place where Jones acquired the Athenæum’s portrait was first suggested, based on a passage in Chamisso’s narrative, in Huc-M. Luquiens, “Kamehameha’s Portrait,” Annual Report of the Hawaiian Historical Society 45 (1936): 22; and repeated in Charlot, Choris and Kamehameha, 52. The biography of Jones by Gast does not conclusively state that Jones visited Manila on this voyage (Ross H. Gast, Contentious Consul: A Biography of John Coffin Jones [Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1976]). On Jones, see also Harold Whitman Bradley, The American Frontier in Hawaii: The Pioneers, 1789-1843 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1942).