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Raphael Soyer Photo

Raphael Soyer

Russian-American Painter and Lithographer

Born: December 25, 1899
Died: November 4, 1987
"When I was a boy there was no such thing as therapy. I was alienated and always within myself. I was not a normal kid spiritually."
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Raphael Soyer Signature
"We believe that texture and accident, color, design and all the other elements of painting are only the means to a larger end, which is the depiction of man and his world."
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Raphael Soyer Signature
"I consider myself kind of a guy of three cultures; the Jewish culture, Russian culture, and American culture."
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Raphael Soyer Signature
"From all that I have seen, I am more than ever convinced that art must communicate, and it must represent, describe and express people, their lives and times."
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Raphael Soyer Signature
"I don't flatter my nudes, but at the same time there is no anger. And there is, I think, a great deal of sexual anger in modern art."
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Raphael Soyer Signature
"I choose to be a realist and a humanist in art."
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Raphael Soyer Signature
"I don't believe in the word 'modern' in art. Modern to me means fashionable. Clothes can be modern, but art goes on - it is timeless."
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Raphael Soyer Signature
"People ask me why the people I paint are always so sad. I don't know. It just turns out that way."
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Raphael Soyer Signature

Summary of Raphael Soyer

Drawing on his own immigrant experience, Raphael Soyer sensitively portrayed a vast swath of working-class and homeless men and women during the Great Depression and in the decades following World War II. Affiliated with both the Fourteenth Street School and the Social Realists, Soyer's presentation of the plight of the urban population resisted overt politic statements and instead probed the psychological toll of growing consumer capitalism. An ardent opponent of abstraction, which during the 1940s and 1950s was ascendant, Soyer insisted on a humanistic realism in order to communicate with his viewers.

Soyer, along with artists such as Reginald Marsh and Isabelle Bishop, kept alive and expanded the tradition of figurative painting. Their urban subjects and their sympathetic depictions have received new scholarly attention and can be related to the international reprise of figurative painting after World War II.

Accomplishments

  • Soyer's subjects - unemployed men in breadlines, homeless men waiting for shelter and assistance, the New Women of the workforce - made up the fabric of the urban environment of New York City. In portraying the downtrodden and the underdogs, Soyer wanted to give voice to the overlooked and unseen to elicit recognition and empathy from the viewer.
  • Instead of political painting that exposed the structural deficiencies of American urban society like some other Social Realists, Soyer opted to show the more personal and individual costs of such a society, and his work was unique in its psychological explorations. While working from models hired from the streets, Soyer managed to create intimate portraits of specific people, but people who remained nameless and not recognizable to the public and so the portraits become depictions of anyone and everyone to whom viewers can more easily relate and find commonalities.
  • In rejecting the trends toward abstraction, Soyer looked to the French Realism of Gustave Courbet and Edgar Degas. Closer to home, Thomas Eakins and the Ashcan School painters inspired Soyer's realism. Often employing looser brushstrokes and relying on color instead of line, Soyer's realistic depictions also emphasize the materiality of the paint, thus undercutting idealized and romantic attitudes toward his subjects.

Biography of Raphael Soyer

Raphael Soyer Photo

Raphael Soyer and his twin, Moses, were born in 1899, near the central Russian town Borisoglebsk. His father, Abraham, was a scholar and teacher of Hebrew and the intellectual leader of the family's small Jewish community. His mother, Bella, was an embroiderer. The couple raised the boys in an atmosphere of intellectual inquiry and encouraged their sons to sketch and paint at home, hanging works by Russian artists around the house as decoration. Abraham's liberal ideas and popularity among students, however, led to trouble with the Russian provincial authorities, and the family, being Jewish and needing permission to reside in the town, was denied their Russian residence permit; they were thus forced to emigrate to the United States in 1912, where they moved to Philadelphia before settling in the Bronx, New York, a year later.



Progression of Art

1932

The Artist's Parents

The most striking aspect of this double portrait is the symmetry of the subjects' expressions; Soyer's parents appear drawn and exhausted and their eyes resigned and tired. His father rests his head in one hand, while his mother's sturdy arms are folded in front of her body. They are sitting at a table, and behind them, one can see a cabinet with a mirror on top, a family photograph, and a light switch. The colors are muted and dull, but the brushwork is energetic, almost impressionistic.

This poignant work epitomizes the feelings and attitudes shared by many during the Great Depression. Drawing influence from the Ashcan School's preoccupation with the ordinary, everyday lives of working-class New Yorkers, Soyer encapsulates their world-weary experience through their whole body - from their slumped postures, their exhausted eyes, and in his father's furrowed brow. The way in which the work draws the viewer to the subjects' eyes invites compassionate and poignant examination. He has not flattered them - that was not his concern - rather he presented the truth of their character. He could have omitted the unappealing wall switch from the painting, but he wanted to present an accurate representation.

As curator Ori Z. Soltes explains, "The work is a powerful statement of how the older generation suffers the pains of the immigrant condition.... With all of its problems, the Old World offered the comfort of familiarity. The New World, with its own language, culture and customs, offers shock and conflict. We see the artist's parents self-isolated, caught between the Old World and the New, their bodies here and their minds there."

Oil on Canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

1935

The Mission

Five men, seated around a counter, drink coffee from tin cups and eat bread. Placed before a blank, featureless background, the men do not interact with each other. The contrast between light and dark creates a bleak atmosphere, and the men stare past each other, save the one in the center, who looks out toward the viewer instead.

Soyer's depiction of newly arrived immigrants and those suffering from the Great Depression led to his reputation as an American Scene Painter, and his paintings and prints are among the most evocative representations of the period - a time when men would spend hours in bread lines in order to obtain a stale loaf for their families. Soyer renders these works with a sympathetic eye, showing his affinity with the immigrant poor and perhaps drawing on his own experience of sadness and isolation.

Soyer was a skilled lithographer, and he considered this to be one of his most important works. The grim portrayal of their silent consumption of basic rations is reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters (1885), which drew attention to the harshness of Dutch peasant life. Soyer used harsh light to accentuate the gaunt and furrowed face of the malnourished figure in the foreground, who holds a piece of white bread in his hand that recalls the white, stone-like potato in van Gogh's painting. Thus, the 20th century artist updates van Gogh's subject in the setting of Depression-era New York. Using homeless men he befriended in the Bowery as his models, Soyer depicts their dejection and defiance.

Lithograph (Edition of 25) - Museum of Modern Art, New York

1936

Office Girls

Soyer presents a closely cropped snapshot of the bustle of afternoon rush hour. Figures, hemmed in by the skyscrapers in the background, move in various directions; he depicts two women frontally, as if they were walking toward the viewer, and two more women and a man face rightward, with one of the suit-wearing women holding on to her hat. All of the figures are presented in dark clothing except the most visible one: she wears a white blazer over a dark shirt, with pink flowers pinned to her lapel. She carries a bag and a newspaper under her arm, and with her shoulder-length blond hair and tilted hat, she looks out at the viewer.

Soyer sought beauty in the ordinary and everyday and turned to the streets around his Union Square neighborhood for inspiration, and he was fascinated in particular by female subjects, the "New Women" of the city. Soyer often took up as painting subjects these professional women, who worked clerical jobs in offices or as shopgirls in the increasingly popular department stores; he emphasized their independence but also suggested that they were, in his words, "usually not very happy." The urban type of the "New Woman," as she was called, provoked endless commentary. One reviewer, upon seeing Office Girls, declared that the young women were "not particularly enticing" and were "thin, wiry, alert...still showing the nervous strain of their days." As art historian Ellen Wiley Todd explains, the reviewer was offended that their work, though consequential to urban life, undermined their femininity.

As a spokesman for the underdog, Soyer aimed to create art out of common experiences. While often described as a Social Realist, Soyer avoided propagandistic portrayals and preferred not to politicize his subjects, rather he wanted to depict the truth of what he saw before him every day on the streets and in cafes and bars.

Oil on Canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1936

Transients

In this dark and powerful piece, twelve men sit in a waiting room. One carries crutches, another reads, and one man in the background hunches over, perhaps asleep. They are homeless and desolate, sitting on rickety chairs waiting to hear if they will be given a place to sleep. The central figure leans towards the viewer, and his earnest expression, submissive pose and positioning of his hands suggest that he is begging for help. Though painted in muddy, earth tones, the artist uses a warm light to highlight his subjects' expressions - expectant, resigned, tired, and bored.

During the mid-1930s, Soyer often painted homeless men; Soyer recalled, "I painted people who were out of work. I mean, they just sat there, either in the sun or in the shade, and did nothing. I painted them a lot. And that too may have been considered Social Realism." In the left foreground of the canvas, a man leans forward, and one sees the face of a familiar character in many of Soyer's works: Walter Broe, an elderly homeless man who had been the only child of poor Irish immigrants. Soyer met him one night trying to fish for pennies using a stick and some chewing gum near the Whitney Museum of American Art. Soyer offered him a job modeling and then recommended him to his friends, helping him off the streets and letting him live in his studio. In life, as in art, Soyer was an advocate for the immigrant, the down-and-out, and the dispossessed. Soyer, like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans who photographed the laborers and downtrodden during the Depression, depicted these men with, as the Blanton Museum explains, "unflinching honesty and uncommon humanity."

Oil on Canvas - Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin

c.1940

Girl Standing Semi-Nude

In this portrait, we see a woman, bare chested, looking down, and holding a deep red garment to her breasts. She appears awkward and self-conscious as she stares down at the floor, seemingly, to avoid the viewer's gaze. Her dark messy hair frames a vulnerable face that is deep in thought. While Soyer emphasizes her sexuality by positioning her breasts in the center of the canvas, art historian Bryna Campbell explains that he does not objectify or demean her through a stereotypical depiction but instead highlights the alienating effects of such stereotypes. Soyer presents to the viewer a quiet and sensitive exploration of psychological estrangement experienced by young women and immigrants in the chaotic, urban environment.

The brushwork and light touch of his paint, along with the subject matter, which he returned to often, calls to mind the realism by French painter Edgar Degas. In the 1920s, Soyer's twin brother Moses was working in Paris when he sent Raphael a book on Degas that was to become a treasured possession and a significant influence on his work. Speaking in 1981, Soyer said, "I still have it. It's one of my precious books. I was always more interested in the more psychological art. I mean, artists with a kind of psychological bent." Instead of depicting the structures and mechanisms of the increasingly capitalistic society as many Social Realists did, Soyer opts to explore the psychological toll on the individuals living in and oppressed by the capitalist order.

Oil on canvas - Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in Saint Louis

c.1940

Cafe Scene

In Cafe Scene, a woman sits alone at a small table for one. Her bright red lipstick emphasizes her pale face as she stares away from the viewer, lost in thought. Although calm, quiet, and still, her crossed arms and legs suggest an inner-turmoil which is brought into sharp relief by the posture of the only other figure in the canvas: a man in the background, sitting relaxed with hands in pockets. This observation of disquiet, or unease, became a common motif of the artist's and a metaphor for the social isolation of modern life. Her blank expression invites viewers' interpretations and speculations.

Soyer's brushstrokes are rough and imprecise, and he relies on color instead of line to create the scene. As art critic Paul Richard wrote, "Many are the portraitists who harp on props and details, the gleam of a pearl earring, the goblet on the table there, the shine of silk or leather. Soyer is not one of these. Nothing in his pictures is portrayed in sharp focus; they owe nothing to the photograph - except, perhaps, their eerie sense of the instant seized."

Following the example set by the Ashcan School, Soyer was fascinated with the daily lives of working-class New Yorkers. This work displays his unique eye for intimacy and mood. Unlike many painters, Soyer refused to accept commissions; instead his interest was with the personal, and through his portraits of the anonymous working class, he made a study of the effects of the modern world on the psyche.

Oil on canvas - Brooklyn Museum

1963-65

Homage to Eakins

In this group portrait, Soyer portrays numerous realist painters, including Leonard Baskin, Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, Jack Levine, John Koch, Edwin Dickinson, Henry Poor III, and John Dobbs, as well as himself, his brother Moses, his daughter Mary, and Lloyd Goodrich, the biographer of Eakins and friend to realist painters. Painted in the first half of the 1960s when Abstract Expressionism dominated the markets, Pop Art was making its way into the galleries, and artists were turning to more experimental modes of art making such as performance, Soyer double-downs on realism and presents its American tradition on a large scale. He painted each figure separately from life (except Marsh who had already died) and arranged them later on the larger canvas.

In the background, one sees Thomas Eakins' paintings hanging on the wall, including his famous The Gross Clinic (1875), Salutat (1898), and William Rush Carving his Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1908). By positioning these men in front of Eakins' masterpieces, Soyer creates a lineage that underscores the seriousness and thoughtfulness of the realist tradition. He made numerous sketches of each men and wrote about each in his diary, and during this time, Soyer enriched his commitment to realism by studying the works of Delacroix, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rembrandt. In a letter to Joseph Hirshhorn, the eventual purchaser of Homage to Eakins and all of the ancillary sketches, Soyer admitted, "I am working on the painting now, inch by inch, and am beginning to have the usual anxieties about overworking it. It is a characteristic of artists - ever apprehensive, anxious, and uncertain." Perhaps Hirshhorn would have heard an echo here of another artist he was collecting around the same time - the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning - who was notorious for not finishing paintings and who said he worked out of anxiety and doubt.

Oil on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.


Influences and Connections

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Raphael Soyer
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    Nicolai Cikovsky
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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Raphael Soyer Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 25 Mar 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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