Jesús Rafael Soto was born on June 5, 1923 in Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela, an old colonial town on the edge of the virgin forest on the banks of the Orinoco.
He was the eldest son of Emma Soto and Luis García Parra, a violin player, who were to have four other children.
While working to make a contribution to the family's upkeep, he went to primary school and, when he was about twelve, began to learn the guitar. It was also at this time that he began to copy reproductions of paintings he found in magazines, books and almanachs.
At the age of sixteen he became a poster painter for the movie theaters in Ciudad Bolívar.

When I was eleven I began to make a living doing lettering and other odd things like store signs (...)
Then I got a job painting posters for a movie theater; I could do as many as fifty a day, but at the same time I took the liberty to paint movie characters to advertise the big features
. ( Soto, quoted by Rafael Pineda, " Jesús Soto, el artista-mecenas de Ciudad Bolívar ", Imagen,Caracas, n° 26, 14-21 décembre 1971, p. 8.)

He came into contact with a group of surrealist students who were publishing in the local press and who encouraged him to take up a career as an artist.

Ciudad Bolivar
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Soto received a scholarship from the Guyana regional authority to study at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Artes Aplicadas in Caracas, where he arrived in September 1942. He took classes in “pure art” and the “training course for instructors in art education and history”.
A circle of students of all age trained by Antonio Edmundo Monsanto, the school ‘s liberal and well-respected director. They were Omar Carreño, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Narciso Debourg, Dora Hersen, Mateo Manaure, Luis Guevara, Pascual Navarro, Mercedes Pardo, led by the most advanced among them, Alejandro Otero (192l-l993). Most of the group's members were to meet again in Paris in the late forties. Monsanto ensured that foreign magazines and books came into the school, as well as the many reproductions and engravings which were a major source of information for the students.

When I entered art school, I was fascinated by one thing: a still life by Braque on an easel by the main entrance. I felt the same interest as when I heard about surrealist poetry in Ciudad Bolívar. I immediately concentrated myself in this direction. Everything started to revolve around this : why was it a work of art? First of all, I went to see Alejandro Otero, who was one of the most brilliant students and who came from my home town of Ciudad Bolívar . He advised me to take the time I needed to get used to this new form of painting, telling me that it was difficult and that I would learn gradually. From that moment I felt dissatisfied, and I continued searching and collecting information as much as I could . (Soto, Soto, pintura figurativa 1944-1950, eshibition catalogue, Caracas, Galería de Arte Inciba, Palacio de las Industrias, 1971)

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Every year from 1943 to 1949, Soto exhibited works at the Venezuelan Art Salon in Caracas.
At the time his painting was influenced by Cézanne, following the teaching of Monsanto who had students study reproductions of the great painter's work.

At the end of my first year, I tried to do landscapes or still lives composed in different ways, trying to get into Cubism or to get closer to Cézanne.
I was never interested in producing impressionist work, I was always more concerned with constructive aspects. I didn't paint landscapes like most of my fellow companions: landscapes reminiscent of Sisley or Monet. I saw the Venezuelan landscape in terms of large planes.
[...] The five years I spent in Caracas were a learning period for me: or a time, one could say, when I was getting information. Until I arrived in Europe my work was above all investigative: finding new possibilities, getting to grips with what modern painting was about at the time to see if I could add anything to it. The school wasn't an academy, it was like a big workshop with artists, students and teachers you could talk to. [...]
For me, Cubism was an exercise in construction, in the ordering of planes, a tool that helped me to translate the tropical light which, as I've said, I couldn't understand from the Impressionists' point of view.
Later, when I arrived in Europe , I was able to understand Impressionism. I never could in Venezuela because the light was so harsh. (Soto, Soto, pintura figurativa 1944-1950, exhibition catalogue, Caracas, Galería de Arte Inciba, Palacio de las Industrias, 1971)

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Soto completed his studies and received his teacher's diploma. He was appointed director of the School of Art in the small town of Maracaibo , and also taught at the Baralt high school and at the local teacher training college.

In Maracaibo I gave myself completely to the Art School as both director and teacher, as well as other commitments outside. I taught those who wanted, and those who didn't, to recognize Picasso. It was a terrible task because the other teachers at the art school and the high school opposed my ideas and destroyed the work I did with the pupils. [...] During this time, it became more and more necessary for me to get out of Maracaibo , to leave Venezuela , to find new information about what was going on in the world in terms of art. (Soto, Soto, pintura figurativa 1944-1950, exhibition catalogue, Caracas, Galería de Arte Inciba, Palacio de las Industrias, 1971)

It was also in Maracaibo that he first heard somebody talk, in disparaging terms, of Malevitch's Carré blanc sur fond blanc.

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