As a young boy in Russia, where he was born in 1899, Raphael Soyer's penchant for artistic realism was confirmed when he realized one could draw a living person. His intense interest in art continued after his family, including his twin brother Moses and brother Isaac, emigrated in 1912. Settling in New York, Raphael studied painting and drawing at Cooper Union, the National Academy of Design, and with Guy Pene Du Bois at the Art Students League. In 1929, the year of his first solo show at the Daniel Gallery in New York, he joined the John Reed Club, where he taught art classes. In the mid-1930s he was a member of the American Artists' Congress.
Soyer developed his subjects from the socially concerned ambiance of the street life of poor sections of New York. But unlike the painters of the Ashcan School twenty-five years earlier, Soyer and his contemporaries saw the city subject matter not as picturesque spectacle, but with a more intense realism, with a truer view of human poverty. While Soyer's sympathies and artistic interests rest with the common man, his political philosophy never dominated or overpowered his art. Where there might have been propaganda, we find instead a love of human character expressed clearly and frankly, infused with Soyer's own special way of finding the gentleness in human beings.
While Soyer is best known for his treatment of the human figure, he also painted landscapes and marines when on vacation or visiting friends on Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. These landscapes are colorful and modern in feeling, with fresh, vigorous brushwork and a masterful sense of design.
In 1967, Soyer was given a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in other years his paintings were shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, National Museum of American Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and numerous other museums and galleries. He taught at the Art Students League, the New School, and the National Academy of Design. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1958 and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1969. Soyer died in New York City in 1987.
Raphael Soyer's work is included in a number of museums, including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; Brooklyn Museum; Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Detroit Institute of Arts; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Newark Museum, Newark, NJ; Phillips Gallery, Washington, DC; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.