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U.S. life and times of a Japanese portrait artist

by Hiroaki Sato

In notifying me of Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum show that opened in April, “Portraits of American Tragedy,” Miyoko Davey speculated that there might have been a “secret love” between portraitist Kyohei Inukai and one of his subjects, Lorna Bowen. Davey is an art collector who contributed Inukai’s works to the show.

Kyohei Inukai?

Today only a few art aficionados will recognize the name. But Inukai (1886-1954) was a renowned society portrait artist in New York in the 1920s and 1930s, who, one critic noted, created something different from “the followers of the Sargent-Chase School.” Among the notable people who commissioned him for their portraits was Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of IBM.

Then his name faded, and disappeared. In fact, Davey says his name did not ring a bell when she stumbled on one of his works at a Christie’s auction in 1988. But as she went on to discover, his life was unusual for a Japanese immigrant artist. Two American women married Inukai, though both marriages failed. Several may have fallen in love with him. Still another, likely an actress, may also have married him.

Inukai was unusual in one other respect. He left an autobiography written in a refined English. I know of no other Japanese artist who did anything comparable. Inukai’s account, titled “Confessions of a ‘Heathen,’ ” however, leaves out chunks of his life.

The largest omission has to do with his first marriage. It was to Lucene Leonette Goodenow (1892-1958), a pretty “society girl.” She came to know Inukai at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was an outstanding student.

We know these things only because of the newspaper articles from those days and other information that Davey painstakingly assembled for the Japanese translation of “Confessions” by Kyoko Selden, published in 2013. The English edition will be out next month.

As Anthony Jones, honorary chancellor of the Art Institute, stresses in the essay he contributed to the Japanese edition, the museum-cum-school was co-ed from the start, and in the early 20th century, more than half of its students were women.

As Jones also points out, in 1906 when Inukai registered at the institute, talk of the Yellow Peril was at the forefront. Just a year earlier Japan had been declared victor in the Russo-Japanese War, and that had begun to agitate many Americans: The United States would be Japan’s next target!

In fact, in December 1909, when the Goodenow-Inukai plan to wed the next month became public, the Illinois legislature was considering an anti-miscegenation bill outlawing marriages between Americans and Asiatics, the term current at the time.

Inukai himself described an instance of “cruel and wanton racial persecution” he suffered while attending the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco. Not long thereafter, a great earthquake struck the city, on April 18, 1906, forcing him to abandon it and go east.

Lucene Goodenow was a woman of strong will. A newspaper quoted her as saying that if Illinois made miscegenation illegal, she’d wed the man of her choice in some other state. She naturally ignored the objections of her parents and some of her friends to the marriage.

Alas, the marriage lasted only four years, even as the couple produced three sons. By early 1915, Inukai was out in New York, alone. That summer he met a woman whose face was “one of exceptional beauty, sensitive yet strong” and whose “eyes which were extraordinarily large and expressive seemed to radiate the smoldering flame of passion in their dark intensity.”

Her name was Olivia Kirkland and she was an aspiring opera singer. Inukai married her later and had a son.

In “Confessions,” Inukai described their encounter, courtship and their first embrace on a summer of thunder and lightning with a dramatic flair worthy of an opera. He accorded Lucene nothing remotely like that. He referred to her a couple of times, but pseudonymously as “Alice,” and only hinted he had children with her.

Not that he did not reflect on “the first marriage.” As far as he was concerned, he mused, it “consisted of unpremeditated errors of omission. It was an experience for which I was totally unprepared because of emotional immaturity and experience in the elementary realities of life.”

Inukai’s marriage to Olivia, too, failed. That failure was, he wrote, “no doubt due mainly to incompatibility of temperaments and personalities, as well as a conflict of egos. My contribution to its death were an instinct of possessiveness and the inability to comprehend feminine nature.”

He then suggests that, in the marital disintegration, he waded into “social adventures.” He slept around, we infer. He was 158 cm tall and weighed just 46 kg, but he was athletic. In 1929 he led the Washington Square Fencing Team to a national championship.

This brings us back to Lorna Bowen.

Lorna was “silk magnate” Hiram R. Mallinson’s daughter who eloped with the 25-year-old owner of a little restaurant in Greenwich Village, “Green Hat.” Conflicts between the old multimillionaire, his pampered daughter and the young man of modest income were inevitable. Lorna leaped to her death from the 12th-floor apartment on Park Avenue, in the spring of 1928.

Yet Inukai may have had something to do with the apparent suicide of the “Titian-red-haired society beauty,” as The Milwaukee Sentinel described Lorna. Her neighbor on Washington Square South, he had done her portraits. Her death may well have been the reason he wrote, “My interest in painting as a means of expression waned.”

The title of the Mead Art Museum show partly derives from her portrait exhibited.

All this happened when racial prejudice prevailed. Indeed, the Asiatic Exclusion Act, which Inukai regarded as “a crusade against my people in particular,” was enacted into law in 1924. The Showa Emperor, for one, thought that Japan’s decision to go to war with the U.S. originated in that law.

And it was Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that prompted Inukai to write his autobiography.

Still, for the last 20 years of his life, a beautiful brunette named Dorothy Hampton lived with Inukai. He did at least 10 portraits of her, the last known one in 1949.

You might say Inukai’s life demonstrates how women’s capacity to transcend racial bugaboos far surpasses men’s.

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator in New York.