Overlooking the Mass. Turnpike on Ipswich Street, the building that houses the Fenway Studios is the oldest in the country constructed specifically for artists’ studios, with 14-foot ceilings and 12-foot, north-facing windows for ideal painterly light. If people notice it at all—whizzing past on the highway or on their way to a ballgame or nightclub—it’s probably only to remark on its handsome Arts and Crafts facade, which dates to 1905. Most Bostonians have no clue that inside, painters working in every style and genre are toiling away at their easels. Fewer still know that, among them, a highly unlikely candidate carries on the tradition of the Boston School of painting from the turn of the 20th century.
Reverent of the old masters but often described as American impressionists because of the freeness of their brushwork, members of this loosely defined group were heavily influenced by the work of John Singer Sargent and William Morris Hunt, and they included the likes of Edmund Tarbell, Frank Weston Benson and William McGregor Paxton, all of whose work is represented in the Museum of Fine Arts and all of whom taught at the museum school. They would undoubtedly be surprised to learn that more than a century later, their creative torch is being held aloft by an exacting, iconoclastic Japanese artist, descended from an old samurai family.
Yoshi Mizutani, 47, was born in the small industrial city of Suzuka in Mie Prefecture, but from the age of 6 he was raised by his grandparents in the town of Ise on the tip of the Kii Peninsula. Home of the Ise Grand Shrine—the most sacred Shinto site in Japan—it has a rich history, and Mizutani’s grandmother, unusual for a woman of her generation, was a haiku poet and traditional sumi (ink wash) painter. She encouraged Yoshi to take up watercolors at the age of 10. By 16, he was highly skilled in the technique, and two years later, he moved to Europe to study the old masters by traveling in Spain, France and Italy.
“When I was 18, I saw a Sargent painting for the first time,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget. And that was the defining moment. If I never saw his paintings, I wouldn’t be an artist.”
After soaking in the European tradition, he came to the United States to study with the renowned artist Robert Cormier at the R.H. Ives Gammell Atelier in Boston.
“I wanted to study traditional 19th-century painting,” he says, “and the only place to do that was Boston.”
Gammell, best known for his series of paintings based upon the poem “The Hound of Heaven,” was a mid-20th-century master who had studied briefly in Europe (like most of the Boston School artists) and returned to work and teach at the Fenway Studios. Unfashionable for his era (1893-1981), he eschewed modern art and valued classical, realistic, representational and academic painting above all. Under Cormier, Mizutani received the rigorous five-year training that most of the artists who identify themselves as Boston School painters never actually complete: The first year of his apprenticeship was devoted to cast drawing, the second to life drawing, the third to landscapes, the fourth to still life and the fifth (and, as he describes it, the hardest) to portraits. He extended his studies with Cormier for another two years, focusing largely on portraits.
“Yoshi’s training followed the tradition of the Boston School of a century ago,” says Robin Starr, director of American and European works of art at Skinner Auctioneers. “He could hardly avoid picking up the loose impressionist brushwork and interest in light so intrinsic to the Boston School, but at the same time, his portraits are fresh, not stodgy and staid. The portraits of the older Boston School painters adhered to the decorum of their day and rarely revealed the inner lives of their subjects. But Yoshi revels in doing that. His portraits are much more modern, in that they capture the individual both visually and emotionally. And that dichotomy is what makes his work so appealing.”
Nevertheless, Mizutani is so adept at capturing the style of previous eras that in the late 1990s, he was asked to make forgeries of works by Velázquez, van Dyck and El Greco. “They offered me $12,000 and even gave me old canvas, but I freaked out,” he recalls. Yet, in describing his own work, he says, “I intentionally elongate my hands, like van Dyck, so that they’re not dead, or like mannequins. But for faces, I look to John Singer Sargent.”
His process, meanwhile, is decidedly more modern than the old days.
“Every once in a while, I’ll have someone sit for a portrait, but I generally work from photographs. I’ve become especially well-known for children’s portraits [in either oil or graphite], and there’s no way you can get a small child to sit for hours these days.” Instead, he takes extensive photos and then dabs skin tones onto a small canvas. Besides portraiture, Mizutani produces landscapes as well as floral still lifes so exact that you can almost smell the drooping peonies on the canvas.
“Flowers are a great exercise for skin tones,” he points out, and accordingly, flowers from a friend’s shop frequently make their way into the studio.
The studio itself is so immaculate that you could, quite literally, eat off the floor. That’s due to the artist’s punctiliousness, as well as the surprising fact that he’s allergic to paint, or at least to an ingredient that many oil paints contain. “I never touch it,” he says. “And I use pure paint. It’s more difficult than mixing, but I think it gives a better effect.”
Aside from easels, supplies and a small kitchen and living area, his studio boasts three mahogany palettes he had carved as exact replicas of those used by John Singer Sargent, the Spanish portraitist Joaquín Sorolla and Edmund Tarbell, a teacher of Ives Gammell. “They’re very heavy,” Mizutani admits, “so I only use them rarely.”
For his efforts, Mizutani has received commissions to paint aristocrats and members of royal families, captains of industry and famous actors (none of whom he likes to name, out of respect for their privacy), and he has received awards from such organizations as the Salmagundi Club in New York and the Copley Society. Four years ago, he spent a year in Madrid, painting the rectors of a Jesuit university.
Given his ability to adapt and innovate while remaining steadfastly within the ethos of the Boston School, it’s no surprise that Starr describes Mizutani as “the natural heir to John Singer Sargent.” In recent years, the 20th-century art world’s laser-like focus on modernism has given way to a renewed respect and appreciation for painters like Sargent and William Merritt Chase (the subject of a major exhibition on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through Jan. 16).
Which begs the question of whether Mizutani harbors any fantasies about seeing his work someday hang alongside the Tarbells, Bensons and Paxtons in the MFA’s permanent collection. The answer seems to be that he doesn’t much care.
“Museums bother me,” he says. “I see a bad painting in a museum, and it stays in my head.” Spoken like a true artist.