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Obituaries : Raphael Soyer; Social Realist Artist, Age 87

November 05, 1987

Raphael Soyer, one of the best known of the Social Realist artists who rose to prominence when Depression gripped the nation, died Wednesday. He was 87.

Soyer, whose paintings hang in the world's most prestigious museums and private collections, died in his Central Park West apartment in New York City.

Born in Borisoglebsk, Russia, Soyer emigrated to Manhattan's Lower East Side with his family in 1912 after his father, a teacher of Hebrew, was forced into exile.

His lonely, sometimes hauntingly realistic paintings of street scenes and characters, which he began to paint as early as 1926, eventually won him wide critical acclaim. His faces and gestures of American working people often involved self-portraits or those of family and other intimates. "Reflection," in 1962 is a portrait of his then teen-aged daughter, a pensive rendering that stares hauntingly back at the viewer.

He said he tried to portray people as individuals and not as social entities. He also said he couldn't explain the singular loneliness found in his works, one of which, "Avenue of the Americas," included his own lonely likeness among the crowds.

"People ask me why the people I paint are always so sad," he told a newspaper critic. "I don't know. It just turns out that way."

Soyer continued to paint well into his 80s and his work, which won him many honors and awards, has been featured in one-man and group shows at museums and galleries around the world for five decades. Last year some of that output was featured along with 45 other representation artists at Loyola Marymount University in a show called "The Spirit of the City: American Urban Paintings, Prints and Drawings, 1900-1952."

Recently Soyer's work, seen as the last stand of American provincialism before the advent of the Abstract Expressionists, has benefited from a resurgence of interest in realistic art, being exhibited in Paris, Berlin and Hamburg. His paintings, graphics and lithographs can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Gallery, the Whitney Museum of American Art and other major museums.

In 1982, Soyer accepted a rare invitation to be included in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, a collection of self-portraits by about 400 artists.

In September, 1981, he was awarded the Founder's Medal of the James Smithson Society for his contributions to the Hirshhorn, which marked his 80th birthday with a retrospective exhibit in 1979.

Also in 1981, Soyer received the Gold Medal of the American Institute and Academy of Arts and Letters, a prize given to an artist only every five years.

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