An American family of painters of Russian origin came to the United States in 1912 in search of intellectual and religious freedom.
Moses Soyer (1899 – 1974), and his twin brother, Raphael Soyer (1899 – 1987), and their brother Isaac Soyer (1902 – 1981), were raised in an intellectual atmosphere created by their father, a Hebrew scholar. They were inspired by their father’s love of the arts and expressed an early interest in drawing.
The brothers studied painting in New York at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. Raphael also studied at the Educational Alliance Art School (1914-22), as did Moses (1916-20). Each brother had a successful career as a teacher: Moses was on the staff of the Contemporary Art School and the New School for Social Research (1927-34), where Isaac also taught (1971-81); Raphael taught intermittently at the Art Students League (1933-42).
As painters the brothers were prominent in the social realist ‘Fourteenth Street School’ that flourished in Greenwich Village, New York, in the 1920s. This group sought, at a time of social consciousness, to represent candidly the everyday life of the working class.
Deserted Manhattan streetscapes were a favorite theme of Raphael’s early years, and during the Depression he executed numerous studies of unemployed men. By the mid-1930s he had become a leading advocate of realism, not only in his uninterrupted stream of paintings but also in watercolors, lithographs and book illustrations. Raphael depicted his family’s middle-class Jewish life in the USA with reverence and nostalgia. Among his diverse subjects were pregnant women, whom he painted with tenderness and warmth, showing both the mystery and beauty of pregnancy and its physical ungainliness. Capturing the inner character was more important than physical beauty. His world never ceased to be poignant and peopled with men and women caught in moments of quiet self-absorption, even if depicted at parties or in crowds. His paintings of downtown art gatherings throughout the decades present a vivid record of the art scene in New York. He included himself and his brothers in Portraits at a Party (1973-4; Washington, DC, Hirshhorn). For many years Moses’ work depicted urban social scenes. With Raphael he also participated in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project and in 1939 painted two murals at Kinglessing Post Office in Philadelphia, PA. He was opposed to landscape painting, and pursued the opportunity to use art for the purpose of making realistic social statements about his time. Among his favorite subjects were office girls listlessly at work, unemployed men waiting hopelessly in line and young carefree lovers, whom he depicted with particular affection. The model in the studio was also a central theme in his work, and he allowed each figure to assume a natural pose. After the Depression, Moses tended towards ballet subjects. There is a total humility and honesty in his search for a truth behind or beyond the surface, permitting him to avoid the momentarily fashionable and to obtain a fresh, unpretentious response to the things he knew best; this is shown in his self-portrait with Raphael and Isaac, Three Brothers (1963-4; New York, Brooklyn Mus.). Isaac revealed the drama of ordinary city life and his sympathy for the unemployed in his paintings of transients, peddlers, derelicts and office girls. He had one-man exhibitions at the Midtown Gallery, New York (1936), and at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (1942).