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Henry Sugimoto

 
 

An American Painter...

   

 

There are stories to be found everywhere in New York, and we thought that we would stop to tell the fascinating tale of an artist who lived and worked, for very many years (of his long and eventful life), in his large apartment in the building where we write our eCognoscente riffs from, in Hamilton Heights, on the edge of Harlem, and where his daughter Madeleine continues to live.  Japanese-American painter Henry Sugimoto (1900 - 1990) awoke every morning to take a long walk down Riverside Drive where views of the New Jersey cliffs and blue of Hudson River waters inspired him.

 

Sugimoto’s life is an American story of extraordinary resilience, strength of spirit, and devotion to both art and country.  The story begins in Wakayama, Japan where Sugimoto was born in 1900 and spent his childhood and adolescence under the tutelage of his grandfather, a former Samurai warrior (Henry's parents having moved to California when he was 9).  The Samurai class had been officially dismantled during the Meiji reforms in the late 19th century but something of the fiercely independent spirit remained in Sugimoto grandpère who, perhaps sensing a parallel between the creativity that lay behind both sword and canvas, encouraged Henry in his early artistic endeavors.

 

Sugimoto joined his parents in 1919 in Hanford, California – when he arrived, at the age of 19, he barely spoke English, and had not seen his parents in 10 years.  He graduated from art school in 1928, and his spirit of adventure then propelled him across continent and ocean again, this time to Paris, the center of the artistic world where he searched out and took up with a small coterie of Japanese artists.  He had long admired Cezanne and van Gogh but was also influenced by the contemporary French painters Maurice de Vlaminck and André Dunoyer de Segonzac. 

 

Many of the world’s artistic fine fleur also found haven in the City of Lights but for a young Japanese-American artist to undertake such a journey reveals a remarkable spirit of adventure and independence of mind that took him beyond what might have been the constraints of being a Japanese immigrant in the early 20th century.  Early on in his career Sugimoto painted dark, brooding romantic landscapes and developed a distinctive palette – deep earth colors, jeweled green of foliage and patches of blue, that he used to paint both the French countryside and later (he returned from Paris in 1931), the California landscape, until the 1940s.

 

When Can We Go Home?, 1943,
Oil on canvas

 

More history, this time of a slightly darker hue, when Sugimoto and his family (he married in 1934) were interned in a camp along with other Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  In the cubist and Diego Rivera-inspired When Can We Go home? (1943) Sugimoto’s daughter Madeleine (her name homage to all things French and his time in France) looks up imploringly at her mother, asking the same question that must have been on the minds of everyone in the camp.

 

After the war Sugimoto remained devoted to his adopted country -- he moved to New York City where, with the knowledge that skyscraper, river, and cliff were at hand, he assiduously worked at his craft creating a large and refined body of work. Since his passing in 1990, Sugimoto’s reputation continues to grow.  In the 1943 Self-Portrait in Camp (top) painted during his internment, this American master and grandson of a Samurai who took a journey from Japan to Harlem by way of California and Paris wears a blue beret and stares out at the viewer, dignified and courageous, in art as in real life. 

 

 

Read: Henry Sugimoto, Painting an American Experience

 

See: Online Collection, Japanese American National Museum

 

Read: Henry Sugimoto, article in The New York Times

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 


Henry Yuzuru Sugimoto with his parents, Japan, 1900

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Sugimoto, Notre Dame Cathedral, 1931, Oil on canvas

 

 

 

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