A 1930s painter’s gentle, downtrodden New York

New York artist Raphael Soyer’s style of painting was seriously out of fashion during his lifetime.


[“Nocturne,” from 1935, inspired by Soyer’s “Bowery Nocturne” lithograph done two years earlier]

Born in Russia in 1899, his family arrived in the Bronx in 1912.

Soyer soon went to work, holding menial jobs. But throughout the teens, he also studied art, taking free classes at Cooper Union and the Art Students League.


[“Employment Agency,” from the 1930s]

Rather than the abstract style that was popular in the 1930s and beyond, his work was realistic—he cast his eye on the lonely and downtrodden working-class New Yorkers he saw in bars, employment agencies, and on city streets.


[“Office Girls,” from 1936]

With his twin brother Moses and another sibling, Isaac, he was a leading Social Realist.

Soyer sketched and painted compassionate images of lonely and dispossessed Bowery bums, shopgirls, and secretaries going about their lives and appearing ordinary, unheroic, yet deeply human.


[“Sixth Avenue,” 1930-1935]

His 1987 New York Times obituary contains an exchange Soyer once had with Jackson Pollack, which Soyer recounted in an article in Art & Antiques magazine:


[“Cafe Scene,” 1940]

“Without greeting me he rudely said, ‘Soyer, why do you paint like you do?’ ” Mr. Soyer wrote. ”He pointed to an airplane. ‘There are planes flying, and you still paint realistically. You don’t belong to our time.’ ”

”I could have said to Jackson, ‘If I don’t like the art of our time, must I belong to our time?’ But I did not say that. I merely said that I paint the way I like to.”

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12 Responses to “A 1930s painter’s gentle, downtrodden New York”

  1. Lady G. Says:

    Wow, I love his style. Never heard of this artist. I like realistic paintings. Art shouldn’t be roped in to ‘time.’ Then it becomes a ‘fad’ and those only last in spurts.

  2. Susan Champlin Says:

    Wonderful. Thank you for spotlighting him.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    You’re welcome–he’s new to me too, but I can’t stop looking at his work. His subjects reveal depth and humanity.

  4. William Krause Says:

    Raphael Soyer’s paintings reflect humanity, its experience, its values. By contrast most current art output achieves only décor—”smart” photo props.

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    That’s why 80 years later, they’re just so engrossing. We recognize ourselves in all of his faces.

  6. doublewhirler Says:

    And the Art Students’ League keeps on producing talent.

  7. Kazza Says:

    There’s a softness to his work, as though his empathy and compassion is flowing through his brush. I love his work. It touches my soul in a way that a bunch of paints drizzled onto a canvas without pattern or meaning will ever do.

  8. Bob_in_MA Says:

    If you like Soyer, his prints are fairly affordable. Check out the auctions are Swann Galleries. Personally, I think he lacked the spark. His pieces always look too workmanlike. But his heart was in the right place.

  9. William Krause Says:

    Soyer’s work reminds me— When asked what he hoped for in art, this ancient Greek (or Roman, or other) replied “I want to be informed and I want to be delighted,” Who said that?

  10. The transients of Depression-era New York City | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Soyer, a Russian-born painter who moved to the Bronx in 1912, stuck to the social realist style of painting popular at the turn of the century, as exemplified in his sympathetic 1936 piece, […]

  11. A painter renders Union Square’s sea of humanity | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Influenced by early Modernists like Robert Henri and old masters such as Rubens, she became associated with the 14th Street School, a group of realist artists that included Reginald Marsh and Raphael Soyer. […]

  12. Marina Dussan Says:

    You are mixing paintings of three brothers Soyer: Moses and Raphael Soyer were the twin brothers. Issac was their younger brother and not a twin.

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