Raphael Soyer, Dancing Lesson

Raphael Soyer, Dancing Lesson, 1926, oil on canvas, 61.1 x 51.1 cm (Jewish Museum, New York)

Raphael Soyer, Dancing Lesson, 1926, oil on canvas, 61.1 x 51.1 cm (Jewish Museum, New York)

Raphael Soyer’s painting Dancing Lesson depicts the artist’s sister Rebecca teaching her twin brother Moses how to dance. In the late 1990s, Rebecca Soyer remembered the moment depicted in the painting: “One Saturday night Moses felt terrible when the boys all came to a dance with girls and knew how to dance, and Moses did not have a girl and did not know how to dance, so I taught him.” [1]

The Soyers were poor and their entertainment was often limited to amusing each other. Nine people living in a small Bronx apartment under the same roof must have felt claustrophobic, and the crowded canvas, with the three figures packed on the couch bears this out. Soyer’s youngest brother, Israel, plays the harmonica while his father surveys the scene, and his grandmother dozes. His mother Bella sits on an armchair holding a copy of the Yiddish daily newspaper Der Tog, inscribed with prominent Hebrew lettering.

Jewish American art?

Cover, Norman L. Kleeblatt, Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York 1900–1945 (Indiana University Press, 1991)

Cover, Norman L. Kleeblatt, Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York 1900–1945 (Indiana University Press, 1991)

This private scene of Jewish family life is considered one of the essential works of Jewish American art. Scholars generally view the canvas as exemplifying Soyer’s Jewishness and the Jewish American immigrant experience. Dancing Lesson is reproduced in almost all contemporary Jewish art books. It even appeared on the cover of Painting a Place in America, a catalog compiled in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Educational Alliance (a settlement house on the Lower East Side of New York City, where Jewish newcomers learned American manners and customs) despite the fact that Soyer did not take classes at the Alliance. The image is also reproduced on the cover of a volume of Jewish American poetry, and employed as a visual example of “Jewish acculturation in the New World” in a book on modern Jewish politics. In addition, Dancing Lesson appears as the cover artwork for the Yiddish Book Center’s audio series, Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond.

Looking closely at Dancing Lesson fosters conversations about Americanization, immigrant identity, Jewish life in the modern world, and the label “Jewish artist.”

Americanization

Soyer was born in Czarist Russia, and emigrated to the United States with his family at age twelve when the permit that allowed them as Jews to live in their home city of Borisoglebsk was revoked. The Soyers arrived in the United States during the period known as the “new immigration,” between 1880 to 1920. During this period, twenty-three million immigrants came to the United States, of which two million were Jews, and almost one and one half million were Eastern European Jews (the only immigrant group who arrived in greater numbers were Italians). This complicated period in American history provoked questions on the proper way to Americanize immigrants.

Two theories of assimilation existed at the time Soyer arrived in America: the melting pot and cultural pluralism. The cultural pluralists emphasized the importance of maintaining one’s heritage, holding that America would be a better place for its diversity of culture. Whereas those who endorsed the melting pot believed in the possibility for a fused American culture, one in which elements of Americanism and those qualities immigrants brought from the “Old Country” could be successfully blended into a single new American culture. However, the definition of the melting pot was often (mis)understood as the dissolution of all that was seen as un-American. The ideal of the melting pot, therefore, was more often celebrated when conformity was achieved.

Although New York was a city of immigrants, communities were very much segregated into ethnic neighborhoods. The Jewish population primarily congregated in the South Bronx or on the Lower East Side. Within this metropolitan community were basic communal structures, like specialized commercial stores and facilities that accommodated the particular lifestyle of the immigrant Jew. Additionally, Eastern European style coffee houses and restaurants were built to create a world where Jewish immigrants could live comfortably.

At the same time, newspapers written in a language common to the Jewish people, Yiddish, were one of the many new forms of Jewish culture, or American Jewish culture, which arose in America. These papers provided information about the Jewish community and beyond in a language more easily understood by immigrants than English. The first Yiddish daily in New York City was the Yiddishes Tageblatt (Jewish Daily News), founded in 1885. It was followed by hundreds more, such as the liberal, Zionist Der Tog that Bella holds in Soyer’s painting, which was established in 1914. The culturally centered socialist paper Vorwaerts, or Forward, which began in 1897 and is still published to this day. The peak of the Yiddish press came at the time Dancing Lesson was completed, the mid-1920s, when the papers had a daily circulation of around 600,000.

Raphael Soyer, Dancing Lesson, 1926, oil on canvas, 61.1 x 51.1 cm (Jewish Museum, New York)

Raphael Soyer, Dancing Lesson, 1926, oil on canvas, 61.1 x 51.1 cm (Jewish Museum, New York)

Family portraits

The two main figures in Dancing Lesson, Moses and Rebecca, appear flattened. There is minimal modeling, the wall behind the couch is a monotone gray, and Soyer reduces the blush on Moses’ cheek to a red splash of paint. The carpet, too, is rendered flat and pattern-like.

Detail. Raphael Soyer, Dancing Lesson, 1926, oil on canvas, 61.1 x 51.1 cm (Jewish Museum, New York)

Detail. Raphael Soyer, Dancing Lesson, 1926, oil on canvas, 61.1 x 51.1 cm (Jewish Museum, New York)

Above the couch hangs a portrait of the Soyer grandparents in traditional clothes. This framed photograph is out of scale with the figures in the painting—it is almost as large as Moses’ torso. Photographs from the 1920s were not that oversized, and a photograph as large as the one Soyer depicts would have been quite a burden on a voyage from Russia to America. By enlarging the photograph so substantially in Dancing Lesson, Soyer has made it into a kind of icon. The photograph’s disproportionate size indicates how meaningful familiar signs and symbols of life from the homeland were for Soyer, and for Jewish immigrants in general.

As sociologist Robert Ezra Park and his colleagues commented in a 1921 text designed to ease the pressures of the acculturation process: “Quite aside from the question of utility, immigrants, especially the older ones, cherish the memories of their former home, and wish to preserve some signs identifying them with their past.” [2]

Including ancestral figures in portraiture became a commonplace convention in Europe and the Americas from the eighteenth century onward. The portrait typically served to display an extended family lineage, such as we see in Edgar Degas’ The Bellelli Family . The centrally located portrait in the Soyer’s living room, indicating generational continuity, demonstrates a strong attachment to the family’s Jewish past. Certainly, the portrait stands in for ancestors left behind in the “Old Country,” but it also provides a reminder of a simpler, more familiar life, of a time with more settled identity.

While persecution was far more malignant in Russia than in the United States, the Jewish community there provided some comforts that New York City could not, and the Soyers might easily have romanticized memories of the Old Country. The portrait of Raphael’s maternal grandparents was taken before the family inhabited two worlds—Jewish and American. In Eastern Europe, Jews often lived in strong, sizable Jewish communities, where their social, religious, and cultural needs were carefully dictated and easily accessible. After a move to democratic America these older conditions were often remembered as a simpler time. Sociologist Herbert Gans observes: “People may . . . sincerely desire to ‘return’ to these imagined pasts, which are conveniently cleansed of the complexities that accompanied them in the real past.” [3]

Raphael Soyer, Self-Portrait, oil on wood panel, c. 1927, 28.2575 x 21.59 cm (The Phillips Collection)

Raphael Soyer, Self-Portrait, oil on wood panel, c. 1927, 28.2575 x 21.59 cm (The Phillips Collection)

Raphael Soyer, New York painter who is sleepy when he is not painting

Soyer’s first oil self-representation was painted at nearly the same time as Dancing Lesson. In built-up painterly splashes, Soyer portrayed himself at his easel in full frontal view. By posing himself at the easel, Soyer was commenting on his goals as a fledgling artist, and acting as his own best publicist. This small oil-on-panel portrait can be understood as a personal statement, or manifesto, on Soyer’s aspirations as an artist. In that context, it is notable that the inscription below his hands reads, “Raphael Soyer New York painter who is sleepy when he is not painting.” In this distinctive way, Soyer proclaims himself not a “Jewish” artist, but a “New York” artist, thereby affiliating himself with an American cosmopolitan identity, rather than a religio-cultural identity that might interfere with his career ambitions.

As a Jewish immigrant in the fraught 1910s and 20s, Soyer understandably did not want to be labeled as a “Jewish” artist nor did he want his art to be ghettoized; throughout his career, he repeatedly resisted that moniker. Moreover, as Soyer accurately asserted, save—I would add—some notable forays into obvious Jewish subjects, “I always was a non-parochial painter.[4] Indeed, although he dabbled in overt Jewish subjects, Soyer’s diverse oeuvre more often depicted the down-in-out in a Social Realist style, the female figure, and his urban milieu in a humanistic and always figurative fashion.

Conclusion

Throughout his life, Soyer was reluctant to speak about Judaism or to identify as a Jewish artist, most notably avoiding the subject in all four of his autobiographies. In a 1979 interview with the series “Inside New York’s Art World,” Soyer was clearly uncomfortable when he was compared to Isaac Bashevis Singer, a writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978 for his Yiddish-language oeuvre. And yet the two artists collaborated on a few projects in the 1970s and early 80s, including Soyer’s illustrations for two volumes of Singer’s autobiography, one fittingly titled Lost in America (1981).

Many Jews and immigrants nostalgically remembered and embraced their Jewishness as they aged. Bernard Berenson, the great art historian of the very Christian Italian Renaissance and who twice converted to Christianity, also expressed his Jewishness later in life. In a 1953 diary entry Berenson, at eighty-nine years old, described his joy and comfort when associating with other Jews: “How easy and warm the atmosphere between born Jews like Isaiah Berlin, Lewis Namier, myself, Bela Horowitz, when we drop the mask of being goyim and return to Yiddish reminiscences, and Yiddish stories and witticisms! After all, it has been an effort . . . to act as if one were a mere Englishman or Frenchman or American, and it is something like home-cooking and reposing to return to ‘Mother’s cooking.’” [5]

Soyer, along with a number of Jewish American artists who worked in the first half of the twentieth century—among them Abraham Walkowitz and Jack Levine—sometimes expressed through their art themes of Jewish memory and nostalgia, the growing pains of Americanization, and the challenges of living at the intersection of two cultures. Ripe for analysis and conversation, Dancing Lesson offers an excellent case study of Jewish American art and life during the socially, historically, and culturally rich years during and after the great wave of Jewish immigration to the United States.

[1] Rebecca Soyer Beagle, conversation with author, Oakland, CA (July 14, 2000).

[2] Robert E. Park, et al., Old World Traits Transplanted (1921; Reprint, Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1971), p. 284.

[3] Herbert J. Gans, “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Failure of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America,” in On the Making of Americans: Essays in Honor of David Riesman, eds. Herbert J. Gans, Nathan Glazer, Joseph R. Gusfield, and Christopher Jencks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979), p. 204.

[4] Interview with Raphael Soyer, 1979 (video from Duke Library Digital Collections)

[5] Bernard Berenson, Sunset and Twilight: From the Diaries of 1947–1958, ed. Nicky Mariano (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), p. 323. From an October 29, 1953 diary entry.

Samantha Baskind, Biography of Raphael Soyer, Jewish Virtual Library.

Interview with Raphael Soyer, 1979 (video from Duke Library Digital Collections).

Abraham Walkowitz at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Jack Levine at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Samantha Baskind, Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Lloyd Goodrich, Raphael Soyer (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1972).

Milly Heyd and Ezra Mendelsohn. “‘Jewish’ Art?: The Case of the Soyer Brothers,” Jewish Art, vol. 19–20 (1993–94): pp. 194–211.

Norman L. Kleeblatt and Susan Chevlowe, Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York, 1900–1945 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

Isaac Bashevis Singer, with paintings and drawings by Raphael Soyer, Lost in America (New York: Doubleday, 1981).

Alfred Werner, “Ghetto Graduates,” American Art Journal, vol. 5, no. 2 (1973): pp. 71–82.

Cite this page as: Dr. Samantha Baskind, "Raphael Soyer, Dancing Lesson," in Smarthistory, April 17, 2023, accessed May 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/raphael-soyer-dancing/.