Raphael Soyer

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Raphael Soyer
BornDecember 25, 1899
DiedNovember 4, 1987(1987-11-04) (aged 87)
EducationCooper Union, National Academy of Design, Art Students League of New York
Known forPainting, Drawing, Printmaking
MovementSocial Realism

Raphael Soyer (December 25, 1899 – November 4, 1987) was a Russian-born American painter, draftsman, and printmaker. 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. He also wrote several books on his life and art.

His brothers Moses Soyer and Isaac Soyer were also painters.[1]

Early life[edit]

Raphael Soyer and his identical twin brother, Moses, were born in Borisoglebsk, Tambov, a southern province of Russia in 1899. Their father, Abraham Soyer, a Hebrew scholar, writer and teacher, raised his six children in an intellectual environment in which much emphasis was placed on academic and artistic pursuits. Their mother, Bella, was an embroiderer.[2] Due to Russian oppression, the Soyer family was forced to emigrate in 1912 to the United States, where they ultimately settled in the Bronx.

Personal life[edit]

On February 8, 1931, Soyer married Rebecca Letz, who was friends with his sister Fanny.[3]

Education as an artist[edit]

Raphael pursued his art education at the free schools of the Cooper Union where he met Chaim Gross, who became a lifelong friend from that time. He continued his studies at the National Academy of Design and, subsequently, at the Art Students League of New York. While there, he studied with Guy Pene du Bois and Boardman Robinson, taking up the gritty urban subjects of the Ashcan school. After his formal education ended, Soyer became associated with the Fourteenth Street School of painters that included Reginald Marsh, Isabel Bishop, Kenneth Hayes Miller, Peggy Bacon and, his teacher, Guy Pene du Bois. Soyer persistently investigated a number of themes—female nudes, portraits of friends and family, New York and, especially, its people—in his paintings, drawings, watercolors and prints. He also painted a vast number of self-portraits throughout his career.[4] Soyer was adamant in his belief in representational art and strongly opposed the dominant force of abstract art during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Defending his position, he stated: "I choose to be a realist and a humanist in art." He was an artist of the Great Depression, and during the 1930s, Raphael and his brother Moses engaged in Social Realism, demonstrating empathy with the struggles of the working class.[5]


After his time in art school, Soyer did not immediately begin working as a professional artist, and instead painted during his free time while working other jobs.[6] Soyer's first solo exhibition took place in 1929.[7] Beginning in the early 1930s, he showed regularly in the large annual and biennial American exhibitions of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Carnegie Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Academy of Design, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He had a series of solo exhibitions in New York galleries, and also worked in the WPA Federal Arts Project in the 1930s.

Soyer's teaching career began at the John Reed Club, New York, in 1930 and included stints at the Art Students League, the New School for Social Research and the National Academy. His work is in numerous museums including the Museum of Modern Art; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; The New York Public Library, New York; Tel Aviv Museum, Israel; Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy and Los Angeles County Museum, California.[8] Renowned art collector Victor Ganz started collecting art in his teenage years with the purchases of watercolors by Louis Eilshemius and Jules Pascin and an oil painting by Raphael Soyer.

Soyer deeply admired fellow American artist Thomas Eakins, and produced a group portrait entitled Homage to Thomas Eakins, which was based on Fantin-Latour's Hommage à Delacroix.[9]

Among Soyer's portrait subjects were artists and writers who were his friends; these included Allen Ginsberg, Arshile Gorky, Chaim Gross, Gitel Steed, Edward Hopper, and Steve Poleskie. In 1967 the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited a retrospective of his work.[10]

Soyer was hired in 1940, along with eight other prominent American artists, to document dramatic scenes and characters during the production of the film The Long Voyage Home, a cinematic adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's plays.[11] He also illustrated two books for Isaac Bashevis Singer, entitled A Little Boy in Search of God and Love and Exile.[12]


Soyer died in New York in 1987 from cancer, aged 87.


In 1953 Soyer co-founded the magazine Reality, published by figurative artists as a response to the prevailing influence of non-objective art.[13] Soyer wrote and illustrated the following books:[14]

  • A Painter's Pilgrimage: An Account of a Journey with Drawings by the Author, Crown, 1962
  • Homage to Thomas Eakins, etc., Thomas Yoseloff, 1966
  • Raphael Soyer, Self-Revealment: a Memoir, Random House, 1969
  • Diary of an Artist, New Republic Books, 1977


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-02-03. Retrieved 2007-04-26.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) The Columbia Encyclopedia (2001-5). Retrieved on 2007-07-11.
  2. ^ Berman, Avis (December 1979). "Raphael Soyer at 80: 'Not painting would be like not breathing': Smithsonian American Art/Portrait Gallery Library". ARTnews.
  3. ^ Goodrich, Lloyd (1967). Raphael Soyer. New York: The whitney Museum of American Art. p. 10.
  4. ^ Goodrich, Lloyd (1967). Raphael Soyer. New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art. p. 17.
  5. ^ Steiner, Raymond J. (January–February 2000). "Moses and Raphael Soyer at the ACA Galleries". Art Times.
  6. ^ Goodrich, Lloyd (1967). Raphael Soyer. New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art. p. 7.
  7. ^ "Work by Raphael Soyer to be Shown at Forum Gallery Concurrently with Whitney Museum Retrospective Exhibition". Forum Gallery Press Release. 1967.
  8. ^ [1] Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art by Samantha Baskind, Univ. of North Carolina Press. accessed online July 11, 2007
  9. ^ Goodrich, Lloyd (1967). Raphael Soyer. New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art. p. 25.
  10. ^ Raphael Soyer papers, 1933-1989, Smithsonian Archives of American Art
  11. ^ "Cover Article, American Artist Magazine, September, 1940, pp. 4-14"
  12. ^ "artist Soyer dies at 87". Jewish World. November 12, 1987.
  13. ^ Guide to the Raphael Soyer Papers, 1949-1954 Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved July 12, 2007.
  14. ^ Jewish Virtual Library Retrieved July 12, 2007.


External links[edit]