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Chapter Two The Artists
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Raphael Soyer

Although Bishop's position in the contradictory discourse of mainstream new womanhood complicated her personal life and career, thanks to outside support she had educational opportunities that brought her to the center of the art world by the 1930s. Moreover, she could move in circles with artists of her own social, educational, and class background, many of them involved in organizing institutions of support for artists throughout this period. Unlike Bishop, who would always be marginalized by a gender system that placed women outside the normalized model of male artistic achievement, Raphael Soyer was marginalized by socio-economic conditions, immigrant status, and personal circumstances that initially denied him


the educational and social opportunities that placed Marsh and Bishop at the center of the art world. At the same time, however, Soyer's intellectual environment and cultural tradition made him sympathetic to exploring artistic conventions compatible with those adopted by other members of the Fourteenth Street School. By the 1930s, because of his background and his imagery, Soyer came to exemplify the successful American immigrant artist.

The biographical narrative of Raphael Soyer and his twin brother, Moses, contains many of the same tropes of the artist's childhood as that of Reginald Marsh. Raphael was the sickly twin who almost died at birth; both his parents were "artistic," and they encouraged their children to draw (three of the six children—Moses, Raphael, and their younger brother Isaac would become professional artists). Just as Marsh found his subjects in the popular culture of his childhood, Raphael Soyer became a "confirmed realist" with a desire to "paint people" after watching one of his father's students do a drawing from life.[83] But Soyer's circumstances were dramatically different. He and his twin, Moses, were the oldest of six children, born in 1899 in the small Jewish community of Borisoglebsk, Russia. Raphael's father, Abraham, was a scholar and teacher, "employed by the fifty or so aristocratic Jewish families to teach their children Hebrew."[84]

Although the family was poor, Abraham's position as a scholar, rather than an artisan or factory worker, gave them status in the community and later in America.[85] It also gave them access to literature and art. By the time they had been admitted to the local gymnasium at age twelve, they had read much of the Russian literature in their father's study, including works by Dostoyevski, Chekhov, and Tolstoy; in Russian translation they devoured Dickens, Thackeray, and their favorite American novels, Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom's Cabin , and The Prince and the Pauper . Their parents decorated their living space with works by their own hands and postcard reproductions of Russian works and old master paintings; in particular, their father introduced them to Rembrandt, Raphael, and Michelangelo.[86]

Their early life also had a political dimension. Raphael recalled being taken to Zionist meetings with the other older siblings, Moses, Fannie (a year and half younger than the twins), and Isaac. The Soyer home also served as a congenial meeting place for young Jewish intellectuals. By the autumn of 1912, however, these gatherings aroused the suspicion of czarist authorities. The governor of the province refused to renew Abraham Soyer's residence permit, making the Soyers victims of the widespread oppression of Jews that escalated after the failure of the 1905 revolution. Within the month, the entire Soyer family made their way to Liverpool and then Philadelphia, their passage paid for by a Philadelphia relative. They were part of the last wave of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America. (Between 1881 and 1914 approximately one-third of the population immigrated.) Several months after arriving, according to Raphael, Abraham Soyer found work in New York, writing for commercial Yiddish publications and teaching Hebrew.[87]


It is difficult to characterize the impact of the immigrant experience on Soyer's family. They arrived in America after two generations of immigrants had settled in New York, and they chose to live in a small Bronx community rather than at the center of immigrant life, the Lower East Side. The father's income was small, and the older children eventually followed the immigrant pattern of living at home and bolstering family earnings with part-time work. Yet neither the mother nor Soyer's sisters worked the long hours in factories or sweatshops typical of tenement families. By the early teens, the family's quarters were large enough for the mother to designate one room as the brothers' art studio. Typically, life in the New World was far more difficult on parents than on children, and the Soyer family was no exception. Raphael recalled his father being at times "childishly uncompromising, unable to cope with the inconsistencies of his world" and "the turbulent inner life of our bewildered mother." She was frustrated by the "void in her own intellectual growth, the realization of which made her alternately angry and melancholy."[88] Both the elder Soyers, like many immigrants of their generation, would have been confused by a range of customs and social practices at odds with those they had brought with them from Russia. For both parents, change was undoubtedly difficult.

The twins, as the oldest children, also faced a number of difficulties. By the time they arrived in America, Raphael and Moses were better educated and more sophisticated than most American children their age. Unlike their younger siblings, who quickly learned English, they clung to their Russian and consequently were placed with grade school children much younger than themselves. Finding this experience both frustrating and humiliating, they dropped out of Morris High School in 1916—the same year Marsh entered Yale. Although their decision disappointed their parents, who had dreamed of sending their children to college, the family needed the twins' income. A middle-class notion of adolescence as an extended childhood, a period of education and leisure, was foreign to the immigrant family's sense of financial obligation. In an aside on his adolescence Soyer recalled his inexperience and his naive social behavior but stated, "I don't remember myself ever having been young in years."[89]

For Raphael, the years from 1914 to the late 1920s were occupied by part-time work, an artistic education pieced together at a variety of institutions, and hours spent in the back room of his apartment practicing his drawing and painting. He worked first as an errand boy for four dollars per week, then as a general utility boy for a clothing factory for seven dollars per week. In 1914 he and Moses learned about free evening classes at the Cooper Union, where they could draw from life; to be able to take part in them, he tended a newspaper stand from five in the morning to three in the afternoon. In the fall of 1918, when the twins entered day classes at the National Academy of Design, Raphael found a night job within walking distance of the academy, as a soda jerk. Until the spring of 1922, he studied on


and off with the artists George Maynard and Charles Curran, elder statesmen at the academy who taught students in the style of Sargent and Whistler, still the most fashionable American painters in conservative circles.[90]

The academy must have shocked the nineteen-year-old Soyer, who, apart from one childhood trip to Moscow to see Russian painting and regular Sunday walks to the Metropolitan Museum with his brothers, had had little exposure to art in museums and was unfamiliar with the contemporary art scene. On the one hand, the academy was the most conservative of all the American art schools—and the bastion of the genteel tradition. Patrons of its annual exhibitions, an elite social community from which the immigrant Soyer would have been excluded, sought to preserve the artistic status quo. When Soyer entered his first life class, he felt "as overwhelmed by the work of the students as Gogol's hick, Vacula, was when he came to Moscow."[91] On the other hand, a group of younger students wanted to challenge the academy's teachings and its canon by introducing more contemporary art theory and by looking at post-impressionist painters, then considered modern—chiefly Cézanne. Though Soyer felt too shy to even speak to the students with whom he shared classes—among them immigrants like Ben Shahn, the future art historian Meyer Schapiro, and Paul Cadmus—it was the beginning of his education in contemporary American art.

Shortly after the Soyer twins began to study at the academy, they decided it was unwise for them to study and paint together because of their closeness in attitude and interests. Raphael stayed at the academy, and Moses moved to the Educational Alliance, a cultural center on the Lower East Side founded for the children of immigrants. Even with this separation, Moses continued to play an important role in Raphael's education, owing in large measure to his more gregarious temperament and perhaps to the similarity between the social milieu of the Educational Alliance and their own social milieu. Moses, who made friends easily and brought people home to family gatherings, seemed to become assimilated into American life more quickly than Raphael.

Moses was also instrumental in introducing his brother to other kinds of art. Sometime in the early 1920s, Moses attended a Sunday afternoon drawing session at the Ferrar Art Club where Robert Henri gave critiques to participating students. On one occasion, Henri faulted Moses's drawing for its superficial characteristics and its lack of "volume" and "significant form"—modernist terms from Roger Fry, new to Moses, that had been introduced into the American critical and instructional lexicon in the years after the Armory Show. Henri gave Moses copies of the radical publication the Liberator to study, pointing in particular to its images of lower-class women and children drawn by Daumier. Moses shared these, along with drawings by Sloan, Henri, Robert Minor, and George Luks, with both Raphael and Isaac:


What impressed us most was the up-to-dateness, the contemporary spirit of the content of the pictures. These artists dealt with everyday common people and with their humble hard lives at home and in the shops. There were also pictures of strikes, police brutality, child labor and so forth. We also liked the frank, biased attitude of the artists. They were not afraid to moralize. They were kind to the poor and dealt cruelly with the rich.[92]

Although Moses recollected their first exposure to contemporary urban realism from the vantage of the Depression, when artists on the Left sought just such an approach, the introduction was nonetheless important—Raphael claimed that it made him question what he was learning at the academy. By the early 1920s he had learned of the Art Students League, in particular its radicalism and its modernism as taught by teachers like Weber, Bellows, and Sloan. It was, as he recalled, "livelier, freer, noisier, and less orderly" than the academy. Though Soyer wanted to attend league classes, the monthly fee of fourteen dollars seemed prohibitive. Fortunately, an uncle who took an interest in his work gave him enough money for three months of instruction. From January through March 1923, when both Bishop and Marsh were enrolled in Miller's life classes, Soyer decided to study with Guy Pène du Bois.[93]

In choosing a teacher, Soyer avoided the two men whom he believed to be the most popular instructors at the league. The first, George Luks, conducted painting demonstrations with "too much of a display" for the reticent Soyer. The second, Kenneth Hayes Miller, "long nosed and grim visaged" but with a "kind smile," presented a different problem. Soyer disliked Miller's work—later he claimed that the gestures "didn't feel right"—and was concerned about the degree of influence Miller continued to have on his students, who remained friends long after they finished studying with him. By contrast, Soyer appreciated du Bois's work, his unassuming personality, and his unobtrusive method of teaching. After studying with du Bois, Soyer began to paint a series of Bronx and Lower East Side street scenes and small canvases featuring family events, friends, and models.[94]

To this point, except for his schooling, Soyer had made few friends outside his family and the immigrant community. He later characterized the period from the late teens to the mid-twenties as one of deep personal alienation, describing himself as the "shyest, the most inward, non-communicative character, almost to the point of being retarded."[95] In 1926, however, when Moses received a traveling scholarship, married, and left for two years in Europe, Soyer began gradually to emerge from his deep reserve and found ways to exhibit his art. Through a sequence of incidents, Soyer was drawn into the museum and gallery circles, already frequented by Miller, Marsh, and Bishop, that made up the institutional mainstream for contemporary American Scene realism and figurative painting.

Soyer initially exhibited a small Bronx street scene in the annual nonjuried Salons of America exhibition in 1926. Alexander Brook, a onetime student of Miller's and


a highly regarded figure painter, was working as a talent scout for Juliana Force, the director of the Whitney Studio Club. Brook saw and liked Soyer's work, no doubt because, like his own, it drew heavily on the stylistic mannerisms of the French painter Jules Pascin, which were influential in figure painting of the late 1920s. The two artists met and the naturally outgoing Brook helped the painfully shy Soyer to sell that canvas and several other small pieces. Brook next brought Soyer to the Whitney Studio Club, where he met some of the regular members in sketch classes—Peggy Bacon (Brook's wife at that time), Marsh, Katherine Schmidt, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Adolph Dehn, the cartoonist, another student of Miller's. Beginning in 1928, when the club became the Whitney Studio Galleries, Soyer exhibited there and received financial support. Whenever he finished a painting, he would take it to Juliana Force. She would ask Soyer how much he wanted for it; he would ask between one and two hundred dollars, depending on its complexity, and she would pay. As Soyer recalled, "I went home and told my mother that now I felt like a real artist, people were paying good money for my pictures."[96]

At the Whitney Studio Club Soyer also became reacquainted with du Bois who, along with Brook, encouraged Soyer to take his work to the Daniel Gallery. This gallery was a logical choice for Soyer. From 1913, when it opened, to 1932, when it became a casualty of the Depression, Charles Daniel was one of the few New York dealers to represent contemporary American art and to support young artists.[97] After looking at Soyer's Dancing Lesson , a small canvas depicting Soyer's sister Rebecca (Rebbie) teaching Moses to dance in the company of family members, Charles Daniel told Soyer that if he produced eleven more works, he would give him a one-man show. The artist complied, and a year later, in April 1929, Daniel mounted Soyer's first exhibit. Several works sold, and Soyer received positive reviews. He stopped working at part-time jobs and took a succession of Lower East Side studios. In 1931 he married Rebecca Letz, whom he had known for several years as his sister Fannie's school friend, and took his first studio in the West Fourteenth Street district. For the next five years the Soyers led a somewhat peripatetic existence, moving frequently between apartments on West Fourteenth Street and in the West Village. Soyer explained that since landlords would often give a month's free rent to a new tenant, and since they owned only a few household goods, they moved often. In 1938, when he rented a studio at One Union Square, down the hall from Marsh's, the family moved to the Upper West Side, near Columbia University.[98]

Rebecca Soyer taught primary school for much of her adult life, even during the Depression, at a time when married women teachers frequently lost their jobs to men who were out of other work. Her regular income contributed substantially to the couple's well-being and allowed them occasionally to help out less fortunate artist friends.[99] Rebecca was also politically active. Along with Soyer's artist friend Nicolai Cikovsky, she encouraged Soyer to attend his first meetings at the Com-


munist-run John Reed Club for Artists and Writers in late 1929. There, Soyer joined the Communist party and participated in many of the most important political events of the 1930s; he helped to produce collective political satires and club murals, he taught painting, and he demonstrated with fellow artists against the destruction of Diego Rivera's Rockefeller Center mural. By mid-decade he had become a member of the Artists' Union, and he joined the committee that organized the first American Artists' Congress in February 1936.[100]

With his reticence in meeting people, Soyer as a young man had few close women acquaintances. Because Rebecca Letz was Fannie's friend, she entered the family social circle, where Soyer felt most at ease. She also typified the immigrant women Soyer knew, aspiring educators and professionals who placed a high value on intellectual achievement. The encouragement of such achievement had long been part of a household routine by which Soyer's parents fostered competitive ambition among the children, scrutinizing drawings by the three brothers, praising those they judged the best. Soyer's youngest brother, Isaac, and his sister Rebecca both became teachers. Fannie, the older of the two girls and only a year and a half younger than the twins, attended college and became a psychoanalyst. Soyer described her as the most gifted of the children, with an "understanding and perception of human relations beyond the grasp of her brothers."[101]

Elizabeth Ewen looks at how immigrant mothers and daughters in different ethnic groups struggled to bridge the gap between Old and New World models of social interaction and gender conflict. Some of her distinctions, when placed alongside Soyer's recollections of family life, suggest how Soyer himself may have understood and negotiated class and gender ideologies. In immigrant families work was the norm for daughters. In the most patriarchal Jewish families, where boys were considered more important than girls, parents sacrificed the education of daughters for the sake of the sons. In the Soyer family, education and professional training were important for both sexes.[102] In the 1920s as the Soyer children made friends, found their own occupations, and became American citizens, the patriarchal quality of their family life was replaced by self-involvement. Soyer's mother encouraged her daughters to follow the new opportunities available to women in America, even if she could not.

Though he would not necessarily have recognized the middle-class ideology of new womanhood, Soyer knew young women in the immigrant community who adopted it. They pursued the professions that opened most easily for women—in education and the social sciences—seemingly without experiencing the middle-class conflict about combining marriage and career. As Soyer explained it, he did not grow up around "aristocratic" women, and since so many immigrant women contributed to the family income at an early age, it was "perfectly natural" for women to expect to work. Soyer, however, could not recall knowing any of the women who later became subjects in his paintings: those who worked in factories, retail


stores, or offices—the most common workplaces for immigrant women. Nor did Soyer associate with women and men who engaged in the new forms of commercialized leisure. Soyer's models throughout the Depression, actively employed or not, came almost exclusively from the world of culture. Several were actresses or poets, and a number were dancers whom he met through Moses's wife, herself a dancer. Still others were art students or the wives of other artists—Walter Quirt's wife posed for drawings and a lithograph. Though Soyer characterized a number of his early models as "pre-flower children" or "hippies," he described only one of the women—a model named Kathleen—as a true "radical."[103] Fundamentally, Soyer's community was composed largely of intellectuals and professionals.

For all the presence of a revised new womanhood, there were places within the radical artistic community frequented by the Soyers from which women were largely excluded and where feminism played a diminished role. Although Rebecca Soyer urged Raphael to join the John Reed Club and was herself an active member, the club at times made women feel unwelcome. One of the first times he attended a meeting, Soyer invited the model he had been working with to join him. She was the only woman present, and after several pointed "amused and questioning" glances from the men conducting the meeting she became self-conscious and departed.[104] When women did participate in club events, they concerned themselves with the club's agenda, which was not a feminist one. Soyer, for example, recalled Rebecca's involvement with the Scottsboro case and with issues of male unemployment, but nothing related to women or women's work. He did not remember hearing about or reading the Communist party publication Working Woman , produced between 1929 and 1935 to report on the militant strike activities of women and blacks. The exclusion of women from club activities and the omission by the Left of any systematic account of women's experience in class struggle was part of a wider failure of the Left in the 1920s and 1930s.[105] The division between feminism and socialism was also symptomatic of both the conflict and stagnation within the post-franchise women's movement. As Barbara Melosh has demonstrated, the liberal agenda of the New Deal was the only major progressive program in America up to that time unaccompanied by feminist reform.[106]

Throughout the Depression Soyer lived a double existence with respect to the art world—half on the political Left, half at the center. He was soon well known and sought after as a teacher. The John Reed Club asked him to teach on the strength of a positive review by Henry McBride shortly after his first show at the Daniel Gallery.[107] In 1933, shortly after his third one-man show, the Art Students League overhauled its staff; Marsh was elected vice-president and several new instructors were hired, including Soyer, Brook, and Kuniyoshi. Soyer taught during the entire 1933-34 season and sporadically from 1935 to 1942. When he needed money, he would take on a teaching assignment; when he did not, he would stop teaching. Between Raphael's income from periodic teaching and from painting and


Rebecca's income from teaching, the couple achieved a measure of financial stability during the Depression.[108]

Soyer's art generated substantial interest. In 1932 the artist received the Kohnstamm Prize for his painting The Subway at the Chicago Art Institute's annual exhibit. In 1933 the Metropolitan Museum purchased his Girl in a White Blouse ; by the end of the following year a total of nine canvases had been purchased by nationally known museums.[109] After the Daniel Gallery went under, Soyer showed once at L'Elan Gallery in 1932 and then began to make the rounds looking for another gallery. Valentine Dudensing of the Valentine Gallery gave Soyer five hundred dollars for the first four paintings he brought into the gallery and then exhibited his work in five one-man shows between 1933 and 1938.[110] After a joint exhibition with Peggy Bacon at the Rehn Gallery, where Marsh, Miller, and Edward Hopper showed regularly, Soyer received a visit from Pegeen Sullivan of the Associated American Artists Gallery—a new organization that Soyer later characterized as the first of the "plush, commercial" galleries. To persuade Soyer to join, Sullivan told him that the gallery had already signed up the highly publicized Regionalist triumvirate of Benton, Curry, and Wood, thereby assuring the gallery's prestige. She also promised that the gallery would take over payment of his studio rent. For Soyer, the latter argument proved persuasive.[111] By the early 1940s Carl Zigrosser wrote of the Soyer brothers:

These immigrants from a foreign land have contributed to the melting pot, have given richly of their store of feeling and compassion, of their skill and sensitiveness to beauty. The father's prophecy regarding his sons has come true: they are citizens of this great Republic and they contribute their talents and strength to its growth.[112]

Raphael Soyer had become a true American artist.

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Chapter Two The Artists
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