“Poppies” (1890). Painted in Great Britain by Princess Ka`iulani, heir to the Hawaiian throne, at age fifteen.
In 1889, Princess Ka`iulani was sent to school in England. While she was abroad, the descendants of American missionaries in the Hawaiian Islands actively plotted to overthrow the monarchy. Having already forcibly reduced the monarchy’s power, they were maneuvering to take over the government completely.
The princess’s painting suggests her own inner landscape. She often admitted feeling desperately homesick for her beloved islands; and the bay and coastal mountains, though painted in Great Britain, take on a strong resemblance to the shape of Diamond Head and the curve of Waikiki.
These icons of Ka`iulani’s island home fade into the barren background, covered over by Western plants: the red poppy, known for its drowsy, narcotic effect, which can ultimately cause death; and the yellow dandelion, a noxious weed that propagates itself through the soil and the air to choke out other flowers.
Red and yellow are the colors of the royal ali`i, the rulers of Hawaii. Did the princess’s art depict how Western influence was usurping that power, and killing the land and its people?
Art is mysterious, and there’s no way to know if these images were conscious or unconscious. Princess Ka`iulani left no record of why she painted the picture this way. It is certain, however, that she knew of the Western agitators’ intrigues, and her royal family’s heroic struggle to save the Hawaiian kingdom.