Raphael Soyer’s A Railroad Station Waiting Room treats a common theme in the artist’s work: people waiting. He depicted the subject in different contexts throughout his career, from the benign ennui of Bus Passengers (1938, location unknown) to the nervous anticipation of Waiting for the Audition [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Raphael Soyer, Waiting for the Audition, c. 1950, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund), 2015.19.75. A Railroad Station Waiting Room indexes the moods of a diverse group of travelers in the Harlem−125th Street Station as they wait for trains to take them to the Bronx, New Haven, or other destinations. A man in a brown suit staves off boredom by engrossing himself in his newspaper, while a woman seated in the foreground in a brilliant red crocheted hat leans on a paper that has been unfolded and refolded several times over, as if she has exhausted her reading material and now resigns herself to an unrelieved wait. Between these poles of resistance and resignation, other travelers smoke, yawn, or lose themselves in thought. Soyer also conveys the monotony of the wait through various formal means. He repeats the alternation of mint green, brown, and white that makes up the station walls and ticket windows with marked uniformity. The smaller facets of paneling and the lines of the planks composing the walls similarly repeat, echoing the four figures on the bench, whose backs slump one after the next in a series of parallel curving lines.
A Railroad Station Waiting Room was exhibited in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Eighteenth Biennial Exhibition, where it won the Third William A. Clark Prize and a Bronze Medal. Soyer received his awards in person from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt [fig. 2] [fig. 2] "Five Thousand Attend Preview of Corcoran's 18th Biennial Exhibition," Washington Star, Mar. 21, 1943, who praised his work, saying, “I felt as though I were passing through that waiting room, which I have done so many times, and looking at the people myself.” Such comments must have pleased Soyer, not only because Roosevelt complimented his skills as a representational painter, but also because his work prompted her empathetic response. The artist is typically classified as a social realist: an urban, socially aware painter who crafted figures in a representational style. Indeed, Soyer was the very definition of urban, spending most of his life in New York City after immigrating there from Russia at the age of 12. He also spent a great deal of time advocating for the rights of oppressed groups. Unlike many of his peers, however, Soyer professed a determination not to allow specific political views to enter into his art. Rather, he sought to present a more universal, humanist view of city life, one with which people from all walks of life, privileged or poor, homeless man or First Lady, could relate. Eleanor Roosevelt’s ability, then, to empathize with the boredom of the people in the waiting room she herself had visited proved the success of Soyer’s painting.
Because Soyer sought a universal perspective in his art, he downplayed other more personal influences, particularly his own observant Judaism. The Soyer scholar Samantha Baskind has argued, however, that contrary to his claims, his art expressed a Jewish worldview that was shaped by the concept of social justice known as tikkun olam, or “repair the world.” “Tikkun olam,” Baskind writes, “means in the most universal sense, that Jews are not only responsible for the ethical and material welfare of other Jews but also for the ethical and material welfare of society as a whole.” Thus Soyer did not see it as his duty, as he said, to “paint so-called class-conscious pictures” that might prompt specific political action, but to paint works that were inspired by and that in turn inspire a sense of shared humanity and social consciousness.
In A Railroad Station Waiting Room, boredom is the great leveler. It evokes a sense of alienation that, ironically, unites us all. But Baskind also understands this sense of alienation, particularly as Soyer expresses it in the context of transience, to be another biographical aspect of his art. A sense of ephemerality indeed pervades the Corcoran’s canvas. Soyer has not only portrayed people in transit, but the very instant he has captured is fleeting: a woman yawns, a baby looks curiously over her mother’s shoulder, a man holds a cigarette in his mouth.
Soyer and his twin brother, Moses, who was also an artist, were born in Russia, where their father worked as a Hebrew teacher. Their home became a meeting place for students and other Jewish intellectuals, and, as a consequence, their residence permit was revoked in 1912. In a matter of months the family moved to Philadelphia, where the intellectually precocious teenagers were placed in a kindergarten class because they could not yet speak English. This personal experience of being uprooted, as well as the more general immigrant experience as part of the Jewish diaspora, led Soyer to focus on painting themes of alienation, homelessness, and travel. He regarded these experiences as part of the human condition and thus central to artistic enterprise: “In my opinion if the art of painting is to survive, it must describe and express people, their lives and times. It must communicate. . . . I consider myself a modern artist, or rather an artist of today . . . because I am influenced by the thoughts, the life and the aesthetics of our time.”
August 17, 2018