On 24th October 1967, American painter Raphael Soyer found himself standing amidst a lifetime of his creations at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Born in Russia in 1899, Soyer emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1912, eventually becoming a prominent figure in the Social Realist movement. Often compared to greats like Degas and Eakins, his work spotlighted the everyday men and women of New York City—capturing the zeitgeist, yet somehow timeless. On this landmark day, as Soyer gazed upon the faces and figures he’d painted over four decades, he felt a complicated mix of emotions. Not only did this retrospective offer an overwhelming view of his life’s work, but it also triggered an existential contemplation on his artistic journey.
The Diary Entry
Fifteen minutes before my exhibition opened to the public, Rebecca [Letz, his wife] and I were admitted to the Whitney. The first glance of rooms opening upon rooms filled with my paintings was startling. It is hard to describe my feelings upon suddenly being confronted with so great a part of my life work. I was engulfed in a panorama of canvases.
Looking at all these pictures, I didn’t know whether to be pleased or distressed by the sameness, the thread of continuity I found there. Though the men and women who people my canvases cover a span of forty years and more, they have changed little. Their costumes may differ slightly, but their bearing, their gestures, the atmosphere emanating from them, are hardly changed. There is the same detachment, the same disassociation even when grouped together, the same withdrawal, the same involvement with oneself. From the first to the last canvas there is no abrupt or sudden activity, no drama. On the whole, I was struck by a sense of the static, of repose. The gestures are restrained, the arms never too far away from the body. Even the walking figures and those engaged in work have an air of arrested motion. This is true even of my latest compositions (“Pedestrians,” “Village East”). Like stills from some contemporary film; sitting, standing, walking, there is a feeling of waiting for something that is not even expected to come. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot suddenly came to my mind.
All these paintings were done in New York, of its people, its streets, of myself, the members of my family, my friends. “Art is local,” I said to myself, quoting from my favorite aphorism by Derain: “Stupidity is national, intelligence is international, art is local.” I recalled the paintings I saw this morning at the Metropolitan Museum by Rembrandt, Degas, Eakins. “Art is local,” I repeated to myself.
Raphael Soyer’s original diary lives in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. In 1977 it was edited and published by New Republic Books with the title, Diary of an Artist. It’s a very thoughtful and pleasantly written diary, strengthened by the inclusion of forty pieces of his artwork.