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Lisa Strong, “Raphael Soyer/A Railroad Station Waiting Room/c. 1940,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/177821 (accessed August 24, 2019).

 

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Overview

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.”

Entry

Raphael Soyer’s A Railroad Station Waiting Room treats a common theme in the artist’s work: people waiting.[1] 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]. 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.[2] 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], 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.”[3] 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.[4] Unlike many of his peers, however, Soyer professed a determination not to allow specific political views to enter into his art.[5] 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.[6] 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.”[7] 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,[8] but to paint works that were inspired by and that in turn inspire a sense of shared humanity and social consciousness.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.”[12]

Lisa Strong

August 17, 2018

Inscription

lower left: Raphael / Soyer

Provenance

(Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery, New York): purchased March 1943 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art; acquired 2015 by the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition History
1940
Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 27 November - 8 January 1941, no. 149.
1941
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.
1941
Raphael Soyer, Associated American Artists Galleries, New York, 18 March - 7 April 1941, no. 49, as Railroad Waiting Room.
1943
138th Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1943, no. 126, as The Waiting Room.
1943
Eighteenth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 March - 2 May 1943, no. 84, as Waiting Room.
1949
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.
1958
The Iron Horse in Art, Fort Worth Art Center, 1958, no. 101, as Waiting Room.
1959
American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959, no. 24, as Waiting Room.
1959
Paintings and Sculpture from the American National Exhibition in Moscow, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1959, no. 11.
1967
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.
1978
The William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 26 April - 16 July 1978, unnumbered catalogue.
1980
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.
1981
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.
1984
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.
1998
The Forty-Fifth Biennial: The Corcoran Collects, 1907–1998, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 17 July - 29 September 1998, unnumbered catalogue.
2004
Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2004-2005, unpublished checklist.
2005
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.
2008
The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
2013
American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
Technical Summary

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.[1] He built up his paint in fairly thick layers, blending the paint wet into wet with low impasto. Under ultraviolet light the thick varnish layer has the characteristic greenish fluorescence of a natural resin. The condition of the painting is excellent with only a few tiny retouches evident in the ultraviolet examination. The varnish is discolored and somewhat overly thick and glossy.

Bibliography
1943
"3 N.Y. Painters Win Corcoran Gallery Awards." New York Herald Tribune (11 March 1943): 11 repro.
1943
"Art Prizes Awarded Here to 4 Painters." Washington Times-Herald (11 March 1943): 27.
1943
Berryman, Florence S. "Corcoran Art Gallery's Biennial Exhibition [exh. review]." The Washington Star (21 March 1943): E5.
1943
"Corcoran Winners." Art Digest 17, no. 12 (15 March 1943): 8 repro.
1943
"Five Thousand Attend Preview of Corcoran's 18th Biennial Exhibition." The Washington Star (21 March 1943): A3, repro.
1943
Frost, Rosamund. "Wartime Biennial is Hand-Picked this Year." Art News 42, no. 4 (1-14 April 1943): 19.
1943
"In the Realm of Art: The Corcoran and Local Shows." The New York Times (21 March 1943): 2:7.
1943
"Painting by Mattson Wins First Prize at Corcoran Biennial." The Washington Evening Star (10 March 1943): 5 repro.
1943
"Pennsylvania Annual [exh. review]." Art Digest 17, no. 9 (1 February 1943): 8 repro., 9.
1943
Roosevelt, Eleanor. "My Day." New York World Telegram (22 March 1943): 2:17.
1943
"The 18th Corcoran Biennial [exh. review]." Magazine of Art 36, no. 4 (April 1943): 136 repro.
1943
The Poe Sisters. "Corcoran Art Preview Here Draws Crowd [exh. review]." Washington Times Herald (21 March 1943): B1 repro., 2.
1943
Watson, Jane. "Corcoran Show, Although Small, Displays Freshness and Spirit [exh. review]." The Washington Post (21 March 1943): 5:2 repro.
1960
Larkin, Oliver. Art and Life in America. Revised and enlarged. New York, 1960: 433 repro.
1960
Pierson Jr., William H., and Martha Davidson, eds. Arts of the United States: A Pictorial Survey. New York, 1960: 360.
1961
Gutman, Walter K., Jerome Klein, and Raphael Soyer. Raphael Soyer: Paintings and Drawings. New York, 1961: 78 repro.
1972
Goodrich, Lloyd. Raphael Soyer. New York, 1972: 70, 124-25 repro.
1973
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.
1974
Baigell, Matthew. The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930's. New York, 1974: 201 repro.
1975
Getlein, Frank. "Bill Corcoran's Collection IS America." Art Gallery 18, 4 (January 1975): 21.
1980
Kotz, Mary Lynn. "John Brademas: 'Touchstone of the Arts.'" ARTnews 79, no. 7 (September 1980): 94 repro.
1981
Ostrow, Joanne. "Americans at the Corcoran [exh. review]." The Washington Post (2 October 1981): Weekend: 5.
1984
Baigell, Matthew. A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture. Revised edition, New York, 1984: 271, repro.
1994
Lucie-Smith, Edward. American Realism. New York, 1994: 134, 135, repro.
1996
Apgar, Garry, Shaun O'L. Higgins, and Colleen Striegel. The Newspaper in Art. Spokane, 1996: 73, 141, repro.
1996
Baigell, Matthew. A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture. Revised edition, New York, 1996: 271, repro.
1999
Heyd, Milly. Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art. Brunswick, New Jersey, 1999: 73, repro.
2000
Cash, Sarah, with Terrie Sultan. American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, 2000: 201, repro.
2002
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.
2003
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.
2011
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.
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