Sunday, 29 December 2013


“A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Raphael Soyer (1899 - 1987), was a Russian-born American artist, 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 both 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 Athenaeum).

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 industrialisation. 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.

In his “A Railroad Station Waiting Room” painted around 1940 (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC), we see a scene reminiscent of Daumier. An acute observation of ordinary people caught by the artist in an everyday situation. The linear composition framing the heads works well and allows the viewer to look at them all in succession. Each face tells a story and the props that surround them bring that story alive. The dark, sombre grays and browns are highlighted by the green striped wall and the splashes of colour here and there. The red headscarf of the young woman seeking work is a ray of hope, as is the baby in pink. However, when one looks at the older men further to the right, despair is seen. The yawning woman and the plump man look as though they are better off and hence in another compartment. The painting is social realism and depicts the issues of the day well.

1 comment:

  1. YES!! Whenever I lecture on Social Realist art in the USA, the American students become very uncomfortable. I am always thrilled to place the blame for America's depression where it belonged (on big business), and I am always delighted when the labour movements started to gain a bit of power.

    Probably the social realist art made very little difference in the long term fight for social justice and political reform. But you cannot help admiring works by the Soyers, Shahn, Gropper and others. It would have been silly to have focused on Edwardian picnics when political rallies, unemployment lines, labour strikes represented reality for most working families.