Russian-American Painter and Lithographer
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.
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.
Important Art by Raphael Soyer
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."
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.
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.
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)
- Raphael Soyer: Drawings and watercolorsBy Joseph K Foster (January 1, 1968)
- Raphael Soyer Life Drawings and Portraits: 43 PlatesBy Raphael Soyer (May 1, 1986)
- Obituaries: Raphael Soyer; Social Realist Artist, Age 87LA Times / November 5, 1987
- Raphael Soyer Captures 'the Still, Sad Music of Humanity,' and His Own, on CanvasOur PickBy Harriet Shapiro / People / October 24, 1977
- Raphael Soyer, Social Realist Artist, is Dead at 87By Douglas McGill / New York Times / November 5, 1987
- Soyer's Portraits of Intimate CelebrationsBy Paul Richard / The Washington Post / December 5, 1979
- Spotlight Essay: Raphael SoyerBy Bryna R. Campbell / Kemper Art Museum / December 2008
- The Souls of Raphael SoyerOur PickBy Paul Richard / The Washington Post / August 5, 1982