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Study for 'Sentimental Girl'

Not on view

Study for 'Sentimental Girl'

Artist: Raphael Soyer (American, 1899 - 1987)

Date: 1934
Medium: Oil on canvas
Framed: 27 1/4 x 31 x 2 1/2in. (69.2 x 78.7 x 6.4cm)
Overall: 20 x 24in. (50.8 x 61cm)
Inscribed: Label attached to stretcher: 'Whitney Museum of Art / Second Biennial Exhibition / Contemporary American Painting / Artist Raphael Soyer / Address 203 west 14th Street / title Figure / Price $400. / return address Valentine Gallery / Insurance Valuation 639.57' There is also a frame label on the back: 'Louvre Frame Co. / 16 West 22nd St. / New York City / Pattern 262 / 3-1/4 / Finish_______'
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.236
Text Entries

Forty years after Study for “Sentimental Girl” was completed, Raphael Soyer remembered the model as a “vivacious young dancer” named Sylvia.(1) The same woman also posed for the artist’s 1933-34 lithograph, Sylvia, and for a painting of a young woman’s head titled Portrait of an Agitator (location unknown), which Soyer executed in 1938 for the cover of Scribner’s Magazine. The cover’s caption filled out Sylvia Gold’s biography, stating that she was neither “agitator nor model” but a “young garment worker, married, fairly active in her union and mainly interested in interpretive dancing.”(2)

For his images of working-class women in the 1930s, Soyer usually chose women he knew, rather than professional models. They posed for the street scenes showing office workers and shop girls on their way home from work or for scenes that treated the model posed in studio interiors with what one critic described as a “sensitive drabness.”(3) The artist met some of his models at meetings of the Communist John Reed Club, which he regularly attended. Many came from an immigrant background similar to his own and shared his leftist political views. Like Sylvia, some of Soyer’s other models were struggling dancers, writers, or artists. While many held the kinds of low-paying jobs that had once helped Soyer contribute to his family’s income, others were unemployed. By the middle of the Depression, when Soyer and his schoolteacher wife Rebecca were finally earning enough money to make ends meet, the artist remembered earlier hardships and opened his studio to his unemployed models who had nowhere else to sleep.

Soyer’s images of partially clothed models belong to the artistic tradition of the studio picture, but they are never simply about figure painting for its own sake. Influenced by Degas and Eakins, the works are penetrating psychological studies which depend on subtleties of pose, gesture, glance, and effects of light and setting to convey the sitter’s character and mood. In Study for “Sentimental Girl,” for example, Soyer suggested Sylvia’s “vivaciousness” by casting a glowing light on her arms, upper torso, and especially her face. Her flushed cheeks and full red lips heighten the gentle sensuousness created by her partially clad figure, and the red from her lips is picked up in the expressive red brushwork that enlivens the otherwise dreary background to the right of the figure. Although Sylvia’s forearms and hands rest quietly on her knees, the rest of her body is animated. She leans forward in an anticipatory pose, her serious gaze directed at something outside the picture.

Soyer, like many socially committed artists in the 1930s, Wanted to make his art responsive to contemporary issues without making pictures that were overtly propagandistic. Thus, apart from being individualized portraits, the artist’s paintings of studio models are more generalized types whose rumpled appearance, somber moods, disconsolate poses, and lack of purposeful activity embody the hardships and the accompanying resignation experienced by many working-class women during the Depression. By 1934, twenty-three percent of New York’s female workers had lost their jobs, but little publicity was given to their cause.(4) Though men received attention as the principal victims of the economic situation, unemployment was as much a threat to women. There were no large- scale institutions for women’s relief; they seldom joined breadlines, and, when totally destitute, many took the last resort and approached men who would take them in.(5) Observed in this Depression era context, Study for “Sentimental Girl,” and other pictures of women waiting patiently in studio interiors, record these unacknowledged victims of the Depression. By modifying the traditional conventions of the studio picture, Soyer took these lower-class women, who were out of public view, and gave them a sympathetic place of recognition in his art.



1. Letter from the artist to Joseph S. Trovato, March 29, 1975, in the curatorial files of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art. Soyer wrote that the title of the painting was chosen by his dealer, Valentine Dudensing, because Sylvia was posed like the model in another painting from the same period, called Sentimental Girl (Bella and Sol Fishko).

2. Scribner’s Magazine, vol. 104. (November 1938), p. 4.

3. “Social Commentaries Mark the Pennsylvania Academy’s Annual,” Art Digest, vol. 8 (February 15. 1934), pp. 5-7.

4. Lorine Pruette, ed., Women Workers through the Depression: A Study of White Collar Employment Made by the American Woman’s Association (New York: Macmillan 81 Co., 1934.), p. 20.

5. Meridel Lesuer, “Women on the Breadlines,” The New Masses, vol. 7 (January 1932), pp. 5-7.


Estate of Raphael Soyer.