Moses Soyer (1899-1974)
Moses Soyer and his twin brother Raphael, who are considered two of the most important figurative artists working in the United States in the 20th Century, were born in Russia on the twenty-fifth of December in the last year of the 19th century. Their father, Abraham, was a writer and a professor of Hebrew literature in the city of Borisglebsk, and the Soyers grew up in a cultivated, liberal, artistic household. Their father’s students often met in the Soyer home to discuss ideas, a phenomenon which began to make the local governmental authorities very nervous; they began to worry that Professor Soyer might be a dangerous radical, for in Tsarist Russia new ideas were looked on with great suspicion by those then in power.
There was also a growing climate of anti-Semitism in the provincial city of Borisglebsk. One night, on his way home, Professor Soyer overheard a pair of drunken peasants walking behind him. “There goes a Jew,” one said. “Let’s beat him up.”
Abraham Soyer saw the handwriting on the wall, and in 1913 emigrated with his wife and five children to America. Their first stop in the new world was with relatives in Philadelphia, where, Moses and Raphael, in spite of their considerable education...they had by this time finished their primary schooling in Russia and had read almost all the adult books in their father’s library...were put in the first grade because of their small size and inability to speak English. It was a humiliating position for these well-educated teenagers. The only respect they got in Philadelphia was when classroom decorations were needed for holidays. Then they were sought out for their artistic abilities which were already in evidence.
Moses at an early age had begun to demonstrate his innate skill with pen and paper, and his drawing teacher in Philadelphia acknowledged that Moses was a better draftsman than he who was supposed to be teaching the elements of draftsmanship. After some months in Philadelphia, the Soyers moved on to New York, the city where they were to work for the rest of their lives and with which their work is so closely identified.
At first, the Soyers lived in a rented apartment in the South Bronx. “Are these rooms?” exclaimed their mother, Bella, on seeing the apartment for the first time. “They look more like closets!” These were difficult years for the Soyer family. In order to make a living, the distinguished scholar gave poorly paid private lessons and had to crank out articles for the local Yiddish newspapers. It was not easy for a large family living in cramped quarters with very little money.
But these strained conditions must have encouraged the Soyer brothers to seek refuge in art. On Sundays they would walk across a bridge over the Harlem River to visit the Metropolitan Museum and study the works of the great masters who were always an important influence on their art. These early visits to the Metropolitan were the beginning of a lifetime of study visits to museums all over the world as the Soyers continued to draw inspiration from the artists of the past, interpreting their own lives and experience through the traditions established by centuries of western art.
From the beginning, the twins, who were very close to each other, decided to keep their careers as separate as possible. They never studied together; they never exhibited together, though their work is linked by a common sensibility and approach to art, and virtually the same subject matter. They often even painted the same models. Moses first studied at the Cooper Union, later at the National Academy of Design, and at the Educational Alliance School of Art, where he was one day to teach.
On Sundays he went to Spanish Harlem to classes organized by Romany Marie, a bohemian woman who went on to become a Greenwich Village legend. These informal classes were to have a great influence on his work for the teachers were the great American painters George Bellows and Robert Henri.
Bellows and Henri set Soyer’s art on the course it would take for the next half century. Soyer said of their influence: “Henri and Bellows taught me many things, but most important of all they taught me that the theme of man is the noblest theme of art: man in his universe, man in his landscape, man at his work. I believed it then and I still do,” he told a friend when he was in his early sixties.
Soyer, throughout his life, often said: “My message is people,” and although he did produce some fine landscapes and still lifes, what he was profoundly interested in was drawing and painting the human figure.
It is interesting to note that although he is best known as a painter of people, he was never a conventional portraitist; indeed, he never accepted a commission to paint anyone because he did not want to be under obligation to portray his sitters in any way but the way he saw them. It is for this reason that today his portraits have a universality that raises them far above merely skilled depictions of specific persons. Each of his portraits tells something not only about the sitter, but also about the sitter’s world, and often about the struggles and quieter joys of life.
In the early years of the 20th century, American art began to go in many different directions. In 1913, the famous Armory Show, which introduced Modern Art to America, gave impetus to the many “isms’ which were to thrive in America in the coming years: Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Precisionisim, and later that American giant: Abstract Expressionism, which dominated American art for much of the 20th century.
While all this experimentation in art was going on, Moses and a small number of other dedicated and accomplished American painters, quietly continued working in the Realist tradition inherited from an earlier generation of artists.
Moses was only one generation away from Henri, Bellows, John Sloan, and other artists of the “Ashcan School” who portrayed the growing urbanization of America with a usually somber palette. But his roots also went back to earlier masters, especially Rembrandt, Courbet, Corot, Daumier, and Degas...all artists whose visions were intimate and personal.
It was a way of painting that was overshadowed by the revolutions of style in American art after the Second World War. But Moses always remained true to this tradition in which he felt most comfortable, in which he was best able to express himself and to paint what he deeply wanted to paint.
He resisted the temptation of innovation for the sake of innovation, revolution for the sake of revolution. A desire to follow the latest fashions in art was not something in which he was interested, no matter how unfashionable some deemed his art. He was called “derivative” by those who missed the point that he was not merely copying earlier styles, but making them his own and transforming them into a valid way to express his experience of the world around him. He took the language of earlier art and made it unmistakably a language to express his own personal and unique vision.
Looking back from this century to the one that preceded it, much of the experimentation in art which seemed so new and important at the time, is beginning to look a little dated, while the work of Moses and other of his realist colleagues, continues to seem fresh and moving in its timeless universality and integrity.
Moses’s work makes a very profound statement about what life was like at a certain time in 20th century New York, at a certain time in 20th century America. And that is part of what makes it so appealing to us today.
Moses came of age artistically about the time of the Great Depression. Much of his earlier work was influenced by this cataclysmic event. It was his good fortune that Moses found employment as a muralist by the Works Progress Administration, which kept food on the table of so many talented American artists during the depression years, and which left America a rich heritage that is only now being fully appreciated.
In 1935, Moses completed for the W.P.A. a 10-panel mural which dealt with the life of children for a hospital in Brooklyn. He also painted a panoramic mural of Philadelphia for a post office in that city. When it was finished and installed, a catholic priest noticed that Moses had inadvertently forgotten to paint the cross on top of his church, so Moses was summoned to Philadelphia, paint and brushes in hand, to correct the omission. One of Moses’ most famous paintings, which is now in the collection of the National Museum of American Art in Washington, is titled Artists on W. P. A.. In it he has depicted a number of artists working on large murals. Often when an article is published about the W.P.A., this painting is used as an illustration.
However, it was his W.P.A. experience that made Moses realize that his gifts were not really suited to large public works. He found himself drawn instead to more private and intimate expression, a gift which is fully evident in the rich body of drawings that he created.
Moses once wrote: “Drawing is the most intimate and revealing part of an artist’s work. Nothing is more beautiful than a drawing by Rembrandt. It is often simply an idea, a thought put down on a scrap of paper. Yet it is a complete and perfect work of art in itself.”
Drawing was the art form which perfectly suited Moses temperament. With his pens, pencils, and watercolor brushes, he was able to capture the immediacy of life around him. Drawing was for him an important discipline which he diligently practiced throughout his life.
He worked in charcoal, in conté crayon, pencil, pen and ink, watercolor, pastel, and in combinations of those media. According to his son, David, “Moses sketched everywhere he went.” And the richly expressive drawings he left for posterity are a vivid record, depicted with great skill and sensitivity, of his particular world. His world was mostly found in the artistic life of New York City, and his models were the people he found around him: dancers who were colleagues of Ida, his dancer wife; the seamstresses who made the dancers’ costumes; other artists, writers, and actors. He drew while attending what were probably sometimes boring meetings of artists’ associations, in courtrooms while on jury duty, on Long Island beaches near his summer home in the Hampton Bays. When he took his son David, who was more interested in athletic than artistic pursuits, to see the Giants play baseball, while David was absorbed in the game, Moses would sketch the players.
His wife, Ida, was a featured dancer with the Helen Tamaris modern dance group in the 1930s and 1940s, and Moses often went with her to dance studios to observe and draw the dancers. Their bodies and postures, especially when in repose, fascinated him.
Aspiring dancers, writers, actors and other bohemian types were able to earn a few dollars posing for Moses. It was a rich and interesting scene which he observed and put down on paper, and then on canvas. Later in his life, after the Second World War, when he and his family began to make frequent trips to Europe, his work was filled with the wonderful variety of people he saw on ocean liners, in the streets and the cafés of London, Paris, Florence, Rome, and Amsterdam.
If Raphael is a bit better known today than Moses, one must remember that Raphael had the good fortune to live for fourteen years longer than his twin, and therefore had much more time to produce a larger body of work. He was also much more interested in print-making than Moses and left a considerable number of catalogued etchings and lithographs which helped to spread his fame.
Moses made relatively few prints. He was not as interested in the processes of printmaking as was his twin brother. When he made a print, it was usually of an image taken from one of his paintings. He would draw the image directly on a lithographic stone and then send it to the printer’s to be pulled. Most of the lithographs he made were donated to some charitable or artistic cause he believed in, to be sold as a way of raising money for that cause. But while Raphael’s legacy to the graphic arts is a remarkable body of lithographs and etchings, Moses left just as valuable a legacy of drawings, each an original and unique work of art.
Moses was once quoted as saying, “I like an artist who talks with a low voice. A story in the Bible,” he continued, “relates how God spoke to a prophet not in the voice of thunder or in the howling of the whirlwind, but in great silence. For me, the voice of God is expressed through quiet painters like Vermeer, Cezanne, and Degas.”
It is in a quiet and thoughtful voice that the drawings of Moses Soyer speak to us today. His models are seldom classical beauties; the drawings themselves are not always academically correct. He carefully avoided a slick and superficial technical brilliance. His drawings go beyond mere correctness to the essential beauty which Moses saw and captured. Their strengths are the strengths of the real world, and that which moves us is the poignancy of life, captured in line, color, and shading.