Like Wyeth, the Russian-born Raphael Soyer, 86, is a major American artist. In these reflections, Senior Writer Harriet Shapiro, one of Soyer’s longtime models, offers a view from the other side of a master’s easel.
I began posing for Raphael Soyer eight years ago. I met him when I went to his studio on the west side of Manhattan to interview him for the magazine. It was simple. I knew the minute I met him that I would become his model. It was just an instinct I had. I can’t remember whether he asked me or whether I asked him.
For me there was nothing strange about posing. It has always seemed natural. My mother was a painter, and as a child I used to sit for her in her cluttered studio over the garage in the country. From the rusty French windows I looked out into the dark, green treetops. Some of my most peaceful hours were spent in that room, perched on a rickety, red kitchen chair, listening to the birds singing, smelling the turpentine and oils on her palette. She worked as Soyer does, at a big, old-fashioned easel, the kind you crank up and down. It’s not as quiet in his city studio. Still, it is peaceful.
Over the years, posing every Sunday except when Soyer is away, I have stood against a wall, sat on a very hard straight chair, and stretched out on the bed with a pillow under my head. It can get uncomfortable, but Soyer always invites me to take as many rests as I want. I like the lying-down poses best of all because sometimes I fall asleep. When I am sitting and Soyer is at the easel, his back to the light, I can see the first outlines of the painting coming through the canvas. It’s like reading yourself back to front. In the first years I didn’t look at the painting unless he invited me to. Now I go up in the early weeks and we talk just a little about it. We also talk about Degas, one of his favorite painters, and Thomas Eakins. Soyer speaks of them as though they’re right there, not mummified in books or in museums but as though they just left the room. So they’ve become more real, more intimate to me also. We talk too about life and death.
Because I sit still for so many hours, I notice everything in the studio, the acerbic George Grosz drawing of a couple embracing on the gray wall opposite me, dried flowers in a chipped vase, the brushes on the windowsill spread out in generous rows, so alive they look like oats growing in the fields.
Sometimes I hear a scratching sound. It is Soyer working the surface of the oil with his fingernail. By the time the painting is finished, the sides of the canvas, later hidden by the frame, are covered with little dabs and swipes from his fingertips. Sometimes when I pose I wear old petticoats and camisoles. Once, when Soyer was getting set to start a new work, I brought a bright red Carmen-like half slip. I thought it would make a wonderful splash of color in the painting. Soyer hurried over to examine it. He admired it. But it was, he said, too fancy. Sometimes I pose nude. When my friends learn that I sit for Soyer that is always the first question they ask, with more than passing curiosity, with, I guess, a kind of prurience. What’s it like? Questions asked that way aren’t worth answering. It’s just posing. That’s what it is.