Raphael Soyer’s legacy can be found in his treatment of women.
He admired them, but even more importantly, he showed them respect in both his studio and his paintings, some of which are featured in the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s exhibit, “Raphael Soyer: Intimate Portraits.”
The show runs through April 3 in the museum’s Soupcon Gallery and is a rare exhibit in the Baton Rouge area.
“This is the only exhibit of Raphael Soyer’s works in Louisiana,” says Elizabeth Weinstein, the museum’s director of art interpretation and curator. “The New Orleans Museum of Art may have one of his pieces, I’m not sure. But I do know that this is the only museum that is showing his work.”
The paintings are on loan from a local, private collector. The show is small, but as the title states, intimate, presenting women in private, thoughtful moments.
Soyer was born in Russia in 1899 and was 12 when he moved with his family to the United States, where he became one of the country’s best-known artists.
Soyer’s family settled in New York, where the young artist sold newspapers and worked in a factory while studying art, first at The Cooper Union, then at the National Academy of Design, now known as the National Academy Museum and School. Soyer also studied at New York’s famed Art Students League, whose notable alumni include Georgia O’Keeffe, Man Ray, Al Hirschfeld, Winslow Homer, Norman Rockwell, Reginald Marsh and Peter Max.
Soyer was showing his work in New York galleries by the 1920s and established himself as a Social Realist painter in the 1930s.
“He was a leading advocate of Realism throughout his career,” Weinstein says. “He became known for his portrayals of the downtrodden and unemployed, but they were always sympathetic portrayals. And he showed them in the gritty environment of Depression-era New York.”
Included in these scenes were New York’s shop girls, seamstresses, milliners and secretaries.
“The plight of the working woman caught Soyer’s imagination — and his eye,” Weinstein says. “Towards the end of the 1920s, one-third of the American workforce was composed of women. By 1934, 25 percent of New York women were out of work. Soyer’s depictions are of ordinary, tired-looking women, pictured in their work environment, on city streets, or posed in the studio with props. “
Soyer, perhaps, was inspired by French painter Edgar Degas, a master of the studio-picture tradition. Degas’ work is filled with images of laundresses and dancers, along with models as they were bathing.
“Sometimes, Soyer’s models were women he knew well,” Weinstein says. “And sometimes they were women he met on the street and brought into the studio. His relationship to them was always one of respect and friendship, and he often showed them in bare settings and engaged in intimate activity, but they show no awareness of a viewing presence. Their eyes averted, they are emotionally and physiologically distant. Their preoccupation with their own reflective thoughts lends a sense of brooding melancholy.”
Soyer died in 1987 at age 87.