Raphael Soyer (1899 – 1987) was born in Borisoglebsk, Russia on December 25, 1899. His father, Avroham Schoar, a Hebrew teacher and writer who encouraged artistic and intellectual pursuits, was popular with his students. That popularity and his liberal ideas led to problems for him with the authorities. Deported with his family by the Tsarist regime, Raphael’s father moved the family to the lower east side of New York City in 1913.
Soyer left school at age sixteen to help support his family. He attended free classes at The 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 the aspiring artist 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 Soyer with a rich source of imagery for his art which was comprised of sensitive, penetrating portrayals of transients, shoppers, dancers and fellow artists. Soyer observed his fellow New Yorkers from his studio in Manhattan’s lower east side. 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.
One of Soyer’s most frequent model was himself, often posed with pencil or brush in hand as in Self-Portrait, ca. 1927. He did not accept commissions for portraits because his interest was with the private person and the effects of modern world on the psyche, rather than a public façade. He admired Rembrandt, Degas and Eakins because he felt that they were dedicated to showing their times truthfully and they emphasized inner character more than physical beauty.
Two of Soyer’s three 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 he championed Realism at a time when Abstract Expressionism dominated the American art scene.
Soyer and other Social Realists such as Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood and Robert Gwathmey were interested in more than just the painting of the world naturalistically; they were also concerned with and critical of the conditions of modern life. The group flourished in New York City during the years after the stock market crash, when the hardships of the Depression provided an almost endless supply of material on which to comment. The economic difficulties of the Depression could be seen in Soyer’s subjects and unemployed men caught his eye. Women at work became a theme with the artist after 1940.
Soyer wrote four autobiographies. In addition to his 1969 Self-Revealment: a Memoir, Soyer wrote A Painter’s Pilgrimage (1962), Homage to Thomas Eakins (1966) and Diary of an Artist (1977). Soyer died of pancreatic cancer in New York City on November 4, 1987.
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