Raphael Soyer’s A Railroad Station Waiting Room presents two common and related themes in the artist’s work: people waiting and urban alienation. He frequently painted groups of figures that are, in his own words, “disassociated from one another even when they’re painted together.” This scene captures the moods of a diverse group of travelers in the Harlem–125th Street Station of the New York Central Railroad 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. 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. Other travelers smoke, yawn, or lose themselves in thought. Soyer also conveys the monotony of the wait through various formal means. He repeats the alternating colors and vertical lines of the station’s ticket windows and wood-paneled walls, as well as the rectangles on the wainscoting below, with marked uniformity. These recurring elements echo the four adult figures on the bench, whose backs slump one after the next in a series of parallel curving lines.
In 1943 A Railroad Station Waiting Room won an award and medal in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Eighteenth Biennial Exhibition and the artist received these in person from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She 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.”
Raphael Soyer’s A Railroad Station Waiting Room treats a common theme in the artist’s work: people waiting.
Lloyd Goodrich, Raphael Soyer (New York, 1967), 16.
The 1896 building designed by Morgan O’Brien, the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad architect, still stands.
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
Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day,” New York World-Telegram, Mar. 22, 1943, sec. 2, 17; The Poe Sisters, “Corcoran Art Preview Here Draws Crowd,” Washington Times-Herald, Mar. 21, 1943, sec. B, 1, 2; “Five Thousand Attend Preview of Corcoran’s 18th Biennial Exhibition,” Washington Star, Mar. 21, 1943, sec. A, 3.
Milly Heyd, Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art (New Brunswick, NJ, 1999), 73.
Raphael Soyer, “An Artist’s Experiences in the 1930s,” in Patricia Hills, Social Concern and Urban Realism: American Paintings of the 1930s (Boston, 1983), 27.
Soyer, as quoted in Lloyd Goodrich, Raphael Soyer (New York, 1967), 21.
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.”
Samantha Baskind, Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004), 1–16, 92–93.
Raphael Soyer, Self-Revealment: A Memoir (New York, 1967), 72.
Soyer, in Patricia Hills, Social Concern and Urban Realism: American Paintings of the 1930s (Boston, 1983), 27; and Lloyd Goodrich, Raphael Soyer (New York, 1967), 12.
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.
Lloyd Goodrich, Raphael Soyer (New York, 1967), 6.
Samantha Baskind, Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004), 110–179, 181.
Soyer, unpublished lecture, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, 1960, Raphael Soyer Papers, Series III: Articles, Essays and Lectures, Box 2, Folder 13, p. 20, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; and Samantha Baskind, Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004), 125.
August 17, 2018
lower left: Raphael / Soyer
(Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery, New York): purchased March 1943 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art; acquired 2015 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 27 November - 8 January 1941, no. 149.
- Fifty-Second Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, 30 October 1941 - 4 January 1942, no. 192, as Railroad Waiting Room.
- Raphael Soyer, Associated American Artists Galleries, New York, 18 March - 7 April 1941, no. 49, as Railroad Waiting Room.
- 138th Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1943, no. 126, as The Waiting Room.
- Eighteenth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 March - 2 May 1943, no. 84, as Waiting Room.
- Juliana Force and American Art, a Memorial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 24 September - 30 October 1949, no. 116, as Waiting Room.
- The Iron Horse in Art, Fort Worth Art Center, 1958, no. 101, as Waiting Room.
- American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959, no. 24, as Waiting Room.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the American National Exhibition in Moscow, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1959, no. 11.
- Raphael Soyer, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; William Hayes Ackland Memorial Art Center, University of North Carolina; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts [Ohio]; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Des Moines Art Center, 1967, no. 40, as Waiting Room.
- The William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 26 April - 16 July 1978, unnumbered catalogue.
- Guy Pène du Bois: Artist About Town, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, Northwestern University, 1980-1981, no. 105, as Waiting Room.
- Of Time and Place: American Figurative Art from the Corcoran Gallery, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Cincinnati Art Museum; San Diego Museum of Art; University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington; Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga; Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Des Moines Art Center; Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1981-1983, no. 55, as Waiting Room.
- Raphael Soyer's New York: People and Places, The Cooper Union, Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery, New York; Boston University Art Gallery, 1984, checklist no. 20.
- The Forty-Fifth Biennial: The Corcoran Collects, 1907–1998, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 17 July - 29 September 1998, unnumbered catalogue.
- Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2004-2005, unpublished checklist.
- Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 94.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
The painting is executed on a medium-weight, plain-weave canvas that was commercially prepared with a warm off-white ground thin enough that it does not obliterate the texture of the canvas weave. The canvas is stretched onto a six-member stretcher with one crossbar running in each direction. There are Shattuck mechanisms at each of the stretching points. It appears that the artist transferred the work to this stretcher from a smaller one early in the painting process, expanding the dimension along the right side by 2 cm and along the left side by 0.5 cm. Along both sides there is a ridge in the paint where the canvas had previously turned over the edge of a smaller stretcher. There are tack holes within the area of this ridge and the side of the stretcher along the right side. One possible explanation for the restretching is that the artist reused a canvas, but there is no evidence for this in the x-radiograph, which also shows no artist’s changes. In the infrared examination it is clear that Soyer began the painting process by laying out the primary elements of the painting with a dark liquid wash and a small brush.
The infrared examination was conducted using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera fitted with an H astronomy filter.
- "3 N.Y. Painters Win Corcoran Gallery Awards." New York Herald Tribune (11 March 1943): 11 repro.
- "Art Prizes Awarded Here to 4 Painters." Washington Times-Herald (11 March 1943): 27.
- Berryman, Florence S. "Corcoran Art Gallery's Biennial Exhibition [exh. review]." The Washington Star (21 March 1943): E5.
- "Corcoran Winners." Art Digest 17, no. 12 (15 March 1943): 8 repro.
- "Five Thousand Attend Preview of Corcoran's 18th Biennial Exhibition." The Washington Star (21 March 1943): A3, repro.
- Frost, Rosamund. "Wartime Biennial is Hand-Picked this Year." Art News 42, no. 4 (1-14 April 1943): 19.
- "In the Realm of Art: The Corcoran and Local Shows." The New York Times (21 March 1943): 2:7.
- "Painting by Mattson Wins First Prize at Corcoran Biennial." The Washington Evening Star (10 March 1943): 5 repro.
- "Pennsylvania Annual [exh. review]." Art Digest 17, no. 9 (1 February 1943): 8 repro., 9.
- Roosevelt, Eleanor. "My Day." New York World Telegram (22 March 1943): 2:17.
- "The 18th Corcoran Biennial [exh. review]." Magazine of Art 36, no. 4 (April 1943): 136 repro.
- The Poe Sisters. "Corcoran Art Preview Here Draws Crowd [exh. review]." Washington Times Herald (21 March 1943): B1 repro., 2.
- Watson, Jane. "Corcoran Show, Although Small, Displays Freshness and Spirit [exh. review]." The Washington Post (21 March 1943): 5:2 repro.
- Larkin, Oliver. Art and Life in America. Revised and enlarged. New York, 1960: 433 repro.
- Pierson Jr., William H., and Martha Davidson, eds. Arts of the United States: A Pictorial Survey. New York, 1960: 360.
- Gutman, Walter K., Jerome Klein, and Raphael Soyer. Raphael Soyer: Paintings and Drawings. New York, 1961: 78 repro.
- Goodrich, Lloyd. Raphael Soyer. New York, 1972: 70, 124-25 repro.
- Phillips, Dorothy W. A Catalogue of the Collection of American Paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Vol. 2: Painters born from 1850 to 1910. Washington, 1973: 161 repro., 162.
- Baigell, Matthew. The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930's. New York, 1974: 201 repro.
- Getlein, Frank. "Bill Corcoran's Collection IS America." Art Gallery 18, 4 (January 1975): 21.
- Kotz, Mary Lynn. "John Brademas: 'Touchstone of the Arts.'" ARTnews 79, no. 7 (September 1980): 94 repro.
- Ostrow, Joanne. "Americans at the Corcoran [exh. review]." The Washington Post (2 October 1981): Weekend: 5.
- Baigell, Matthew. A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture. Revised edition, New York, 1984: 271, repro.
- Lucie-Smith, Edward. American Realism. New York, 1994: 134, 135, repro.
- Apgar, Garry, Shaun O'L. Higgins, and Colleen Striegel. The Newspaper in Art. Spokane, 1996: 73, 141, repro.
- Baigell, Matthew. A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture. Revised edition, New York, 1996: 271, repro.
- Heyd, Milly. Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art. Brunswick, New Jersey, 1999: 73, repro.
- Cash, Sarah, with Terrie Sultan. American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, 2000: 201, repro.
- Kushner, Marilyn S. "Exhibiting Art at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959: Domestic Politics and Cultural Diplomacy." Journal of Cold War Studies 4, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 24.
- Miura, Atsushi, and Reiko Kokatsu. Railways in Art: Inventing the Modern [Tetsudo to kaiga]. Exh. cat. Tokyo Station Gallery; Hiroshima Museum of Art; Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, Utsunomiya; Fukuoka Art Museum, Tokyo and Fukuoka, 2003: 130, repro., 270.
- Strong, Lisa. "Raphael Soyer, A Railroad Station Waiting Room." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 250-251, 283, repro.