In 1887, the Hawaiian Princess Liliʻuokalani made her first trip to Washington, D.C. Stopping off during a world tour, Liliʻuokalani paid a visit to the White House. “President Cleveland and his beautiful young bride most cordially received and hospitably entertained us,” she later wrote in a memoir. The next morning, the royal party enjoyed a tour of the monuments from a boat on the Potomac River: “It was in the beautiful month of May,” she recalled. “The trees were out with their fresh green leaves, the early flowering shrubs were in blossom, and the banks at the riverside were lined with verdure.” At Mount Vernon, Liliʻuokalani paused in Martha Washington’s bedroom, overlooking George Washington’s grave, and thought about “the sister woman who had sat and reflected over the loss of that heroic life which it was her privilege to share.”

Just a few months ago, Liliʻuokalani returned to Washington, D.C.—in the form of a striking 1892 portrait on loan from the Hawaii State Archives. Visitors can now see the queen’s life-size likeness at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery as part of the exhibition “1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions,” which addresses the overseas expansion of the United States in the year 1898, including the annexation of Hawaiʻi by joint congressional resolution.

Detail of Portrait of Queen Lili‘uokalani
Detail of Portrait of Queen Lili‘uokalani by William F. Cogswell from 1891-92 Hawai'i State Archives; Photo by David Franzen

This portrait represents Hawaiian resistance to the annexation of Hawai‘i. Liliʻuokalani stands next to the Hawaiian throne, with adornments that speak to her royal status. Attached to her dress is a badge and the breast star of the Order of Kalākaua and the Royal Family Order, which was conferred by the head of a royal family to their female relatives. She also wears a sash in the proper combination for a Knight Grand Cross, the most senior grade of seven British orders of chivalry. It’s a stately portrait and a poignant one: Liliʻuokalani ruled Hawai‘i for just under two years, from 1891 to 1893, before she was forcibly removed from the throne.

When Queen Liliʻuokalani purchased the portrait in the middle of her brief reign, she likely viewed it as a means to assert her right to the throne. The artist, William F. Cogswell, was a Neoclassical painter renowned for an important 1869 White House commission of a painting of President Abraham Lincoln by President Ulysses S. Grant. Born near Buffalo, New York, the self-taught Cogswell was at the time living in Honolulu, where he painted portraits of the aliʻi, or high-born Native Hawaiians, and other notable Hawaiian residents. By synthesizing conventions of royal portraiture and U.S. presidential portraiture, Cogswell’s painting made a decisive statement about the legitimacy of the queen’s rule at a time when her fate appeared uncertain.

Since the painting’s completion, it has been hanging in her former home at Honolulu’s ʻIolani Palace. Paula Akana, the ʻIolani Palace’s executive director, acknowledges feeling “mixed sentiments” about the loan. She reasons, though, that the portrait “will be coming back in better shape” than it left. With the support of the Bank of America Art Conservation Project, the frame of the painting will be conserved by Gold Leaf Studios during its time in the nation’s capital. Akana also sees the portrait itself as an embodiment of Queen Liliʻuokalani’s mana, or spirit. “This is possibly her most important trip to Washington D.C. that she’s ever made,” Akana says. “Because it is sharing that story that she was fighting for, on a much larger scale that we could do at ʻIolani Palace.” The shipping of the portrait was supported by the Asian Pacific American Initiative Pool Fund (APAIP), administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC). Yao-Fen You, acting director of APAC, says, "APAIP was delighted to support this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to support Queen Lili‘uokalani’s trip to D.C., where she can be seen by visitors from far and near. I am thrilled to encounter the portrait again, having seen it in situ at ‘Iolani Palace last October. With the gilt frame restored to its original luster, Queen Lili‘uokalani appears more radiant than ever.”

ʻIolani Palace
ʻIolani Palace was the royal residence of the rulers of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Liliʻuokalani was crowned queen of Hawaiʻi on January 29, 1891, after her brother King Kalākaua died in San Francisco. Although Liliʻuokalani was respected by Kānaka Maoli—or Native Hawaiians—and foreign heads of state alike, she inherited a kingdom in which settler colonialism had eroded the power of the Indigenous population. Liliʻuokalani immediately began organizing a new constitution to restore power to the monarchy and to Kānaka Maoli. This strategy, however, spurred on her opponents—Anglo businessmen who were interested in controlling the archipelago’s vast and profitable trading industries.

With the support of the U.S. military, a group of these businessmen enacted a coup. On January 16, 1893, marines from the USS Boston were disembarked from the ship and stationed outside of Hawaiʻi’s government building, located across from and facing the ʻIolani Palace. The troops included 162 men equipped with small arms and artillery. They brought Gatling guns (the precursor of the machine gun), 14,000 rounds of ammunition, two revolving cannons, and—clearly expecting resistance—a hospital unit. They succeeded in disarming approximately 270 Royal Hawaiian Guardsmen.

Almost immediately, the queen and her ministers Samuel Parker and William Henry Cornwell responded by publishing broadsides in Hawaiian and English, declaring, “Authority is given for the assurance that any changes desired in the fundamental law of the land will be sought only by methods provided in the Constitution itself.” Queen Liliʻuokalani worked to find a nonviolent solution, writing in her diary, “For we are without arms, and they are armed to the teeth.”

Queen Liliʻuokalani statue in Honolulu
This six-foot-tall statue of Hawaiian Queen Liliʻuokalani is located in downtown Honolulu between the State Capitol Building and the ʻIolani Palace. Prisma Bildagentur/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Lorrin Thurston was the architect of the queen’s overthrow, which was complete only a day after the initial assault. The grandson of missionaries who had arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1820, Thurston had studied law at Columbia University under John W. Burgess, a leader in Social Darwinist thinking who proclaimed anglo superiority in the art of government. In 1886, Thurston had become a member of the Hawaiian legislature as a representative of the islands of Molokai and Lanai, and worked to assert white superiority in Hawaiʻi. By 1893, Thurston’s influence in Hawaiʻi had become substantial. Pressure from American and European businessmen who, like Thurston, hungered for the dissolution of the Hawaiian monarchy, had reached a boiling point, and the threat of force against royalists was undeniable. The Hawaiian Kingdom could not hope to match the military power of the U.S. Choosing her words carefully, Queen Liliʻuokalani relinquished her power not to the “provisional government” led by Thurston but to the “superior force of the United States of America.”

A year later, on July 4, 1894, Thurston and his puppet government organized the Republic of Hawaii. As Hawaiʻi was being set up for annexation to the U.S., the people of the archipelago organized several petitions in protest. The Hui Aloha ʻĀina petition, with over 21,000 signatures, was delivered to the 55th Congress in 1897. After annexation by treaty failed that year, President William McKinley inquired whether Hawaiʻi could be annexed through joint resolution, or a total of the votes on the issue from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This bypassed the normal and legal method of ratification of law, in which the House first votes and passes a bill, and then the Senate takes a vote. The joint resolution was signed by McKinley on July 7, 1898. Queen Liliʻuokalani immediately wrote to the House of Representatives in protest. “I especially protest against such assertion of ownership as a taking of property without due process of law and without just or other compensation,” she wrote. She refused to attend the annexation ceremony on August 12, during which the Republic of Hawaii turned over the Hawaiian Islands to the U.S.

Today, some historians point out that a ratified treaty (not a resolution) is required to annex land, and moreover, according to international law, the U.S., as an occupying force, should have established a military government to provisionally administer the laws of the occupied state, the Hawaiian Kingdom. Nonetheless, on April 30, 1900, the Republic of Hawaii was renamed the Territory of Hawaii. The Territorial Act granted that “all persons who were citizens of the Republic of Hawaii on August 12, 1898, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States and citizens of the Territory of Hawaii.” Much later, on March 18, 1959, Hawaii became a U.S. state. Both the territorial act and the statehood act surpassed the international laws of occupation set forth by the 1899 Hague Convention II—an agreement the U.S. had ratified.

Liliuokalani 1908 portrait
Liliuokalani, by Harris & Ewing Studio, c. 1908 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Aileen Conkey

Alongside the Cogswell painting, the National Portrait Gallery chose another portrait of Queen Liliʻuokalani from its collection to display in the exhibition. It’s a photograph taken in 1908, during one of her many visits Washington to request that the Crown Lands of Hawaiʻi be returned to her. The request was always denied. But in the photo, the 70-year-old deposed monarch wears a resolute expression, even a slight defiant smile. She would continue to fight the annexation of Hawaiʻi until her death in 1917.

The stately painting that now hangs at the National Portrait Gallery was almost certainly based on an earlier photograph of Liliʻuokalani, taken in 1887 at the Golden Jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria. The 50th anniversary of the British queen’s reign provided an occasion for monarchs to meet—and network. Liliʻuokalani, then still a princess, attended the festivities with Queen Kapiʻolani (1834-1899), the consort of her brother King Kalākaua. The two royal women were on a diplomatic mission, although it would seem to have failed: Just a few weeks afterward, King Kalākaua would be forced to sign the Bayonet Constitution, which forced him to give his cabinet more power than the monarchy and took away land rights from the Kānaka Maoli, the Native Hawaiian people.

Queen Liliʻuokalani's 1887 portrait
Queen Liliʻuokalani's 1887 portrait Hawaii State Archives

For this gathering of royals, Princess Liliʻuokalani and Queen Kapiʻolani chose their attire and jewelry with great care. Liliʻuokalani’s velvet gown was modeled after the latest European styles. It was trimmed with lace and appliqué, and the back bustle was topped with a wide ribbon surmounting an elaborate train. In addition to the royal orders, she wore gemstones at her ears and a ribbon, a pendant around her neck and a diamond butterfly comb in her hair. Two thousand copies of the photograph circulated after the Jubilee.

Cogswell’s painting may have taken its cues from the photograph, but the differences between them are telling. While the photograph set the queen against a decorative backdrop customary for 19th-century photography studios, Cogswell’s classical column and plush burgundy drapery relate to both Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV and Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington. In each of the three paintings, the head of state wears luxurious clothing: Louis XIV is draped in coronation robes of ermine furs and velvet brocade; Washington wears a black velvet gentleman’s suit; and Queen Liliʻuokalani’s is dignified in her velvet haute couture dress.

Louis XIV
Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701 © 2009 RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/Stéphane Maréchalle

However, the gestures of the three monarchs demonstrate their unique approaches to power. The king of France assumes an arrogant pose, with his left hand on his hip to expose his sword. In his right, he bears a scepter that points down to a crown resting on a table, linking two monarchal symbols. The president of the United States outstretches his right hand in a gesture of appeal to the viewer, while his left hand holds a sword emblematic of his role as commander of the American Army against the British during the Revolution. Washington’s oratorical pose alludes to his address to Congress on December 8, 1795, when he implored his countrymen to support the Jay Treaty. The treaty between the United States and Great Britain had been signed and ratified, but the House of Representatives would not release the funds to carry out its provisions, because the treaty was much more in Britain’s economic favor than that of the U.S. In effect, Washington argued that unless these funds were released, another war with England would likely ensue. Because the power lay in the hands of the people, however, he is shown not commanding them but, rather, appealing to a desire for peace.

The queen of Hawaiʻi also wanted to avoid bloodshed and did everything in her power to avoid war. In her portrait, she exhibits both restraint and decorum, demurely holding her gloves before her in a gesture that is more protective than that of Washington but less haughty than that of Louis XIV. Her confidence and self-possession are clear in her direct gaze at the viewer. Her assuredness communicates the Kānaka Maoli belief in mana wahine, or “women’s power,” that was intrinsic to Hawaiian society before European contact. Indeed, women held the rank of chiefs as early as the 18th century in Hawaiʻi, and positions of power were distributed according to rank and prestige, rather than gender. Liliʻuokalani’s confident composure reveals an inherent power—not one justified by scepter, sword or crown. As a constitutional monarch, she also strikes a different tone than that of an absolute ruler, reflecting the social atmosphere of her kingdom. Hawaiʻi had long been multiethnic in its citizenry, and the 1852 Hawaiian Constitution, known as Ke Kumukānāwai o Ko Hawaiʻi Pae ʻĀina, had granted suffrage to all men, regardless of race.

George Washington (Landsdowne Portrait)
George Washington (Landsdowne Portrait) by Gilbert Stuart, 1796. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation

Cogswell’s full-length portrait of the queen rivals the Rigaud and Stuart portraits in both flourish and dignity. The queen’s purchase of this portrait—and its subsequent installation in the ʻ Iolani Palace next to a Cogswell portrait of her brother King Kalākaua—was part of a long colonial tradition of both adopting and subverting Western languages and symbols as an anti-colonial strategy.

Although the portrait has long been in need of conservation, its loan to a federal institution sparked much dialogue between Kānaka Maoli. The Hawaiian community still feels the consequences of the 1893 overthrow and the 1898 annexation of Hawaiʻi. “There was a myriad of feelings of the people,” says Hailama Farden, a community strategist for the Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu. “The United States broke its own laws when it annexed Hawaiʻi, and that has to be stated.” The specific time the portrait brings to mind—the brief and ever-threatened reign of Hawaiʻi’s last monarch—“is a hurtful, hurtful time,” he adds. “In many cases our people are still in turmoil.”

However, Leona Hamano, curator of the ʻIolani Palace, which has exhibited the portrait since 1892, says the loan has the full support of the palace’s staff. Sending the portrait to the National Portrait Gallery, she says, “was an opportunity for the Smithsonian to be that voice … to share that message that Liliʻuokalani was trying to convey … for people who are not aware of that story, for them to become aware.”

1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions” is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery through February 25, 2024.

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