(1899 - 1987)
Raphael Soyer was active/lived in New York. Raphael Soyer is known for social realist figure and genre painting, lithography, teaching.
Born in Borisoglebsk, Russia in 1899, Raphael Soyer is identified as a
Social Realist* painter because of his interest in the common man,
although he avoided subjects that were particularly critical of
Soyer moved with his family to the Lower East Side of
New York City in 1913, after they were deported from Russia by the
Tsarist regime. His father, a Hebrew teacher and writer,
encouraged artistic and intellectual pursuits. His popularity
with his students in Russia and his liberal ideas led to problems for him
with the authorities, and he was forced to leave with his family.
left school at sixteen to help support the family. He attended free
classes at Cooper Union* and at the National Academy of Design*. Guy Pene
du Bois, a teacher at the Art Students League*, recognized his talent
and introduced him to Charles Daniel, who gave him his first solo
exhibition in 1929. The success of this event secured his
position as a professional artist.
The experience of immigrant
life in the United States provided him with a rich source of imagery
for his art, which was sensitive, penetrating portrayals including
transients, shoppers, dancers, and fellow artists. Near his
studio in Manhattan's Lower East Side he observed his fellow New
His subjects were portrayed with strong, flat colors,
which evoked a sense of isolation. Common themes were intimate studies
of solitary women, often nudes, and portraits of fellow artists,
reflecting his great affection and admiration for them.
Soyer's most frequent model was himself, often posed with pencil or brush in hand, as in Self-Portrait
ca. 1927, and his work was mainly in oil and lithography*. He did
not accept commissions for portraits because his interest was with the
private person and the effects of the modern world on the psyche,
rather than a public facade.
Artists he admired, such as
Rembrandt, Degas, and Eakins, he felt were dedicated to showing their
times truthfully, and emphasized inner character more than physical
Both of Soyer's brothers, Moses and Isaac, were also
artists. With his identical twin Moses, he painted murals for the
post office in Kingessing, Pennsylvania. He also taught at the
Art Students League. He was a co-founder of Reality
magazine and champion of Realism* at a time when Abstract Expressionism* dominated the American art scene.
Depression's economic difficulties could be seen in his subjects, and
unemployed men caught Soyer's eye. Women at work became a theme with
Soyer after 1940.
On November 4, 1987, he died in New York.
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
* For more in-depth
information about these terms and others, see AskART.com Glossary
MEMBER: The Hamptons Bays Art Colony. Established before the start of WW
II by fellow fauvist, David D. Burliuk, it was a summer art colony away
from the rat race of nearby New York City.
Burliuk bought a
small house in early 1941 in a quiet area in the East End still easily
accessible to New York City. Soon Nicolai Cikovsky joined him as did
other Russian émigrés, brothers Raphael and Moses Soyer. Moses bought a
house on the same street, Squiretown Road, while his brother Raphael
Soyer and Cikovsky took residences in North Sea.
Burliuk led the
group because he was the oldest member and because his property
included a gallery for all. Consequently the group congregated at
Burliuk's place; it became their salon.
A photo of the Hamptons
Bays Art Colony members posing (Copyright 2008 The New York Times
Company) had this caption: "Standing, from left, in 1952, Nat Werner,
Moses Soyer, David Burliuk and George Constant; in front, Raphael Soyer,
left, and Nicolai Cikovsky."
Submitted by Mark Grove
Russian-born artist Raphael Soyer is best known for his compassionate,
naturalistic depictions of urban subjects. His sensitive,
penetrating portrayals include a broad range of city dwellers: Bowery
bums, dancers, seamstresses, shoppers, office workers and fellow
artists. Historically, Soyer is associated with the social
realist artists of the 1930s, whose art championed the cause of social
Born in Tombov, Russia in 1899, Soyer emigrated with
his family to the United States in 1912. His siblings included a
twin brother, Moses, and a brother, Isaac, who became successful
artists. After settling with his family in New York City, the
young Soyer pursued an art education at Cooper Union from 1914 to 1917,
at the National Academy of Design from 1918 to 1922, and intermittently
at the Art Students League.
Soyer was referred to as an American
Scene painter. He is identified as a Social Realist because of
his interest in men and women viewed in contemporary settings which
included the streets, subways, salons and artists' studios of New York
City, although he avoided subjects that were particularly critical of
society. He also wrote several books on his life and art.
earliest work was consciously primitive in manner. Until the late
1920s, he typically used frontal presentations, shallow pictorial space
and figures rendered in caricature. Later, he developed a brushy,
more gestural style that was tonal rather than coloristic. These
early works are reminiscent of the paintings of Edgar Degas.
Soyer's interest in depicting his urban environment was expressed early in his career in works such as Sixth Avenue
(ca. 1930-1935, Wadsworth Atheneum). As the Depression continued,
the artist turned more and more to subjects directly related to the
prevailing economic difficulties. One result of the mass
unemployment of the 1930s that caught Soyer's imagination was the new
role of independent working women. Hemmed in by the crowd, the
self-absorbed women in Office Girls (1936, Whitney Museum of American Art) are shown walking to or from work. Soyer's sympathetic study of unemployed men in Transients (1936,
University of Texas) is an example of a less propagandistic social
realist work. In addition to paintings, he executed a number of
lithographs of Depression scenes.
Soyer developed his subjects
from New York City's poorer sections. Unlike the painters of the
Ashean School 25 years earlier, Soyer and his contemporaries did not
view the city as a picturesque spectacle. Instead, they dwelt on the
grim realities of poverty and industrialization. Soyer's work, however,
is less issue-oriented than that of fellow social realist artists
Philip Evergood and Ben Shahn.
After 1940, Soyer began to
concentrate on the subject of women at work or posing in his studio.
His technique grew more sketchy during the 1950s, but in his ambitious
painting Homage To Eakins (1964-1965, National Portrait Gallery), he rendered the figures in a manner typical of his early work.
Between 1953 and 1955, he edited Reality. He later wrote Painter's Pilgrimage (1962), Homage to Thomas Eakins (1966), Self-Revealment: A Memoir (1969) and Diary of an Artist (1977).
In 1967, Soyer was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of
American Art, and his paintings have been displayed at many museums and
galleries. He has taught at the Art Students League, the New
School and the National Academy of Design in New York City.