Raphael Soyer was born on December 25, 1899, in Borisoglebsk, Russia, into a large, impoverished Jewish family. Artistic and intellectual pursuits were encouraged by his father, a Hebrew teacher and writer, whose liberal ideas and popularity among students led to trouble with provincial authorities. Denied their Russian residence permit, the Soyers moved to the United States in 1912, finally settling in the Bronx, New York. His twin Moses Soyer, and younger brother, Isaac, eventually became successful artists, but they rarely studied or worked together as adults. Raphael left school at age sixteen to help support the family; he attended free classes at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. Guy Pène du Bois, later his teacher at the Art Students League, recognized the young artist’s promise and introduced him to the dealer Charles Daniel, who gave Soyer his first solo exhibition in 1929.
Soyer was already known for his sensitive portrayal of New Yorkers observed near his studio in Manhattan’s Lower East Side when he joined the WPA Federal Art Project. Working primarily in oil and lithography, he also taught at the Art Students League and, along with Moses Soyer, painted murals for the post office in Kingsessing, Pennsylvania. A cofounder of the short-lived Reality magazine, Soyer was an ardent champion of realism while abstract expressionism dominated the American art scene. He died in New York on November 4, 1987. One oil, Self-Portrait (ca. 1927) is in The Phillips Collection.