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 Raphael Soyer  (1899 - 1987)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: social realist figure and genre painting, lithography, teaching

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
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 society.

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.

Soyer 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 Yorkers.

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 beauty.

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.

The 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.


Sources include:
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 http://www.askart.com/AskART/lists/Art_Definition.aspx



Biography from RoGallery.com:
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 justice.

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.

Soyer's 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.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


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