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.
- 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.
Important Art by Raphael Soyer
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
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) - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
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
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
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
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
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 DC
Biography of Raphael Soyer
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.
Raphael Soyer was one of six children, but the transition was especially challenging for the teenage twins and their older brother. Soyer said, "Moses, Isaac, and myself found it very difficult to acclimate ourselves to this country, this language, because we came at a time of adolescence and we kind of withdrew within ourselves and became kind of alienated people." While his sisters quickly assimilated into the culture, making new friends and thriving at school, the boys struggled during high school.
Education and Early Training
At the age of 16, Soyer was relieved to be able to leave school to help support the family, but he continued to attend free painting classes in his spare time, selling newspapers by day and developing his art by night. He became a dedicated and committed painter. On the day that World War I ended in 1918, he was working on a portrait at the National Academy. He heard distant sounds of celebrations and parades, but while his peers left to join the party, he remained in the studio with the model to finish his work. His passion for painting women earned him the title "the East Side Degas."
As Raphael's painting career took off, so did Isaac's and Moses', inviting the usual sibling rivalry, especially with his twin. Raphael Soyer said, "Moses was outgoing. He brought the first friends to the house. He brought the first girls to the house. I was the more timid. There was, to tell the truth, much rivalry between us. People saw within our work a family likeness which we both sought to destroy. As soon as we were able we went to different schools. We worked in different studios."
Guy Pène du Bois, the artist and critic and later Soyer's teacher at the Art Students League, recognized the young artist's promise and introduced him to the dealer Charles Daniel, who gave Soyer his first solo exhibition in 1929. The show was a success, and in the years that followed, Soyer's work gained national acclaim as a marked departure from the abstraction that had begun to take over the art world.
In 1931 he married Rebecca, a Warsaw-born kindergarten teacher, and he later went on to teach at the Art Students League of New York. They had a daughter, Mary, who would grow up to become a psychiatric social worker.
Soyer was quite short - standing 5'2" - and shy, but he learned to overcome his difference and became popular in artistic circles. In 1932, the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera was commissioned to produce a mural on the wall of the Rockefeller Center, which was later destroyed because of the inclusion of a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Soyer was taken by Rivera and would sketch him as he worked. He frequented the Communistic John Reed Club and became friends with artists Ben Shahn, Edward Hopper, and Henry Poor. While he found common ground with other Social Realists, his adherence to the figurative style was derided as unfashionable by others. In his diaries, he described an encounter with the legendary Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, writing, "Without greeting me he rudely said, 'Soyer, why do you paint like you do?' He pointed to an airplane. 'There are planes flying, and you still paint realistically. You don't belong to our time.' I could have said to Jackson, 'If I don't like the art of our time, must I belong to our time?' But I did not say that. I merely said that I paint the way I like to."
Soyer was among a group of artists, including many who had associated with the Fourteenth Street School, who opposed the dominance of abstraction in the art world, and together they started the magazine Reality in 1953, in which they would publish their ideas. Soyer was known to his friends as a gentle man with quiet resolve, but he was outspoken about the dominance of abstraction in the art world and advocated for realism. "This arbitrary exploitation of a single phase of painting encourages a contempt for the taste and intelligence of the American public. 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," he wrote in a letter countersigned by 45 other artists in Reality in 1953. Soyer's proclamation was met with consternation, causing a furor among the art world. During the age of McCarthyism, Soyer and his friends were accused of being under the influence of Communism and became the subject of negative press.
The rich cultural fabric of New York and its immigrant communities provided Soyer with a great source of subjects, and he became known for his sensitive portrayal of people - the transients, shoppers, dancers, and artists with whom he shared the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side - giving rise to his reputation as a Socialist Realist painter. He also painted unemployed men, reflecting his fascination with the Great Depression and how its economic difficulties played out on ordinary people. He was more interested in psychology than politics and avoided subjects that were particularly critical of society. Soyer's determination to withstand political pressure and criticism and to tell the stories of these voiceless, marginal figures lends his work greater power.
He was honored at the Whitney Museum of American with a retrospective in 1967, where his steady approach to realism and his dedication to communication were on view. Soyer, himself, responded to the show, "Looking at all these pictures, I didn't know whether to be pleased or distressed by the sameness, the thread of continuity I found there. Though the men and women who people my canvases cover a span of 40 years or more, they have changed little. Their costumes may differ slightly, but their bearing, their gestures, the atmosphere emanating from them are hardly changed."
Soyer continued on this path well into his 80s, and he proclaimed never to get tired or bored of it, adding that he would feel physically or mentally ill if a day went by without working. He said, "My eyes bother me when I don't paint. But when I paint a full day, I feel satisfied and everything seems to be OK. I would never stop, never retire. My brother Moses died while he was painting. He was actually working on a painting, and the last words he said were to the model: 'Phoebe, don't frown.' Then he died. He worked to the very last minute." That was in 1974, and Isaac died seven years later.
Soyer did indeed work right up to the end of his life in 1987. He taught into his seventies and painted for longer. He died of cancer at his home in Manhattan at the age of 87. At the time of his death, his dealer and friend, Bella Fishko, said, "I recently asked him what he was working on. He said, 'Painting disheveled girls, as usual.'"
The Legacy of Raphael Soyer
Just as the Impressionists Monet, Manet and Degas, toppled the wall between studio and real life by taking their art from the streets of post-revolutionary Paris, Soyer's compassionate look at Depression-era and post-World War II New Yorkers lent a new perspective. He hoped that viewers would empathetically respond to his depiction of workers, transients, and immigrants themselves, and not connect the depictions to a strong political message. In many ways, Soyer's eschewal of overt politics and his insistence on humanity and the individual's existential plight in the face of immigration, capitalism, and war was in step philosophically, even if not stylistically, with much post-World War II art of the time. Soyer also has a place within the larger international turn toward figuration seen in the second half of the 20th century with Contemporary Realism and the London School.
His obituary in the New York Times noted his advocacy of realism and his prolific output across mediums, and he was described as the "dean of American Realist painters." Art critic Paul Richard said, "Many artists flare, then fade, but Soyer has been constant. His art, for more than 60 years, has been honest, heartfelt, humble."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Raphael Soyer
- Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth CenturyOur PickBy Ori Z Soltes (November 2002)
- Raphael SoyerBy Lloyd Goodrich (1967)
- Raphael SoyerBy Raphael Soyer (1972)
- Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish ArtOur PickBy Samantha Baskind (January 1, 2010)