“South of Union Square, the Birthplace of American Modernism” is a series that explores how the area south of Union Square shaped some of the most influential American artists of the 20th century.
In the 20th century, the area south of Union Square attracted painters, writers, publishers, and radical social organizations, many of whom were challenging accepted American social and cultural ideals. In the 1930s, a group of artists associated with the Art Students League informally known as the Fourteenth Street School came to redefine realist painting. Their work focused on the immediate surroundings of their namesake street, a center of shopping and entertainment for average and working-class New Yorkers. Building on the work of the Ashcan School painters, they combined an interest in social realism and modern urban subjects with a knowledge of Renaissance art techniques. The informal group included Kenneth Hayes Miller, Reginald Marsh, Isabel Bishop, Minna Citron, and twin brothers Raphael and Moses Soyer.
Born in Russia on December 25, 1899, Raphael and Moses Soyer emigrated to the United States with their parents and four younger siblings in 1912 due to the escalating Czarist oppression of Jewish people in Russia. The Soyers were an intellectual and artistic family: Abraham, their father, was a scholar and mentor for young Jewish intellectuals, and three of the family’s six children, Raphael, Moses, and their younger brother Isaac, became artists in adulthood. However, Raphael and Moses Soyer were most closely associated with the Fourteenth Street school. Shortly after arriving in the United States, Raphael and Moses Soyer began taking art classes at the National Academy of Design, the Art Students League of New York, and Cooper Union as teenagers. They met and worked with artists like Robert Henri, the patriarch of the Ashcan School, and Guy Pène du Bois. Shortly after they began studying at the Academy, the brothers determined that it was unwise for them to paint together because of their closeness in artistic outlook and interests. This intentional professional boundary between the brothers, while they were personally close, remained until the end of their lives. The only project that Raphael and Moses Soyer worked on together was a series of 1939 WPA Murals at the Kingsessing Station post office in Philadelphia. These works were thought to be lost until 2009 when it was discovered that the panels had been split into six sections and were hanging in the Philadelphia Postal Service Office.
The Soyer brothers were deeply enmeshed in the social realist style of painting which grew from their involvement with the Labor Movement, Communism, and the Fourteenth Street School. In 1939, Moses Soyer described he, Raphael, and Isaac’s work as sharing the same central message: “Our message is People. The people we paint are the plain people we live and mingle with, people we know and understand best: members of our families, fellow artists, students, dancers, shop girls, workers employed and unemployed. We try to paint them understandingly in their own surroundings, and in natural attitudes. We like especially to paint young people, boys, and girls just past the stage of adolescence who face the world bravely and idealistically and are eager to accomplish great things.” Both Raphael and Moses Soyer were heavily involved in the Communist party and frequently contributed work to Leftist publications tied to the area South of Union Square such as The Liberator and New Masses. Their artistic practice and political beliefs merged in the neighborhood South of Union Square. Importantly, Raphael Soyer kept a studio at 240 West Fourteenth Street within the official South of Union Square area. The radical Marxist art school at the John Reed Club School of Art and the American Artists School, in which both Raphael and Moses Soyer were involved, was located on the northern side of 14th street at 131 West 14th Street. Raphael and Moses Soyer were prolific artists throughout their lives and spent their entire adulthood in New York City until their respective deaths in 1987 and 1974. Their work catalyzes the special cultural environment South of Union Square in the early 20th century through the intermingling of fine art and radical politics.
Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square.
To help landmark these incredible historic structures and other buildings in this area, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square, and our preservation efforts in the area, click here.