The artist Benjamin Shahn (September 12, 1898–March 14, 1969) was born in Lithuania in the Pale of Settlement, the territory where Russian Jews were legally authorized to take up residence. His father was a furniture maker and craftsman. To escape pogroms (the officially-sanctioned massacres of Jews) the family fled Russia in 1906 and settled in Brooklyn, New York. Much of Shahn's later artistic work retained elements of his Jewish background: windows for a temple in Buffalo, illustrations for a Passover prayer book, a series of watercolors on the Dreyfus affair, the frequent appearance of stylized Hebrew lettering in his painting.
At fifteen, Shahn left school to become apprenticed to a New York City lithographer. In his late teens and early twenties, however, he pursued his education doggedly. He went to night school for his high school diploma and attended classes at the Art Students League, New York University, and City College. He also received significant formal and informal education from two extended trips to Europe and North Africa (1924–1925 and 1927–1929).
By the time Shahn returned from Europe and began sharing a New York studio with the distinguished photographer Walker Evans, he was deeply committed to enlisting his artistic talent on behalf of liberal and radical social causes, portraying the travails of the poor and working classes, protesting corruption and injustice. In addition to his Dreyfus series (1930), he produced in 1932 a famous series of twenty-three gouache works depicting the trial and 1927 execution of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and another fifteen works in 1933 illustrating the case of Tom Mooney, the labor leader who was languishing in San Quentin prison after a questionable trial for a 1916 bombing in San Francisco. Shahn's artistic talent and political views brought him to the attention of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and the two worked together on the Rockefeller Center mural that was eventually destroyed after Rivera's refusal to remove a portrait of Vladimir I. Lenin. Two subsequent murals by Shahn (one on prohibition, the other on the history of imprisonment) were rejected by New York's Municipal Art Commission.
During the New Deal, Shahn worked on several government projects, principally under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration. His work consisted of murals and thousands of photographs. The murals adorned post offices in the Bronx (1939) and Jamaica, New York (1939), the community center of a resettlement community in New Jersey (1938), and the Social Security Building in Washington, D.C. (1942). Shahn's photographs movingly depicted the poverty of rural life in the South and Midwest. During World War II Shahn undertook projects for the Office of War Information and was also hired by the Congress of Industrial Organizations to produce pro-Roosevelt campaign posters for the 1944 election. His painting during the war, as might have been expected, was filled with condemnation of Nazism and sympathy for its victims. After the war he continued in various mediums his artistic advocacy of social causes. Shahn also taught at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and at Harvard University. By the time he died, his work had been widely exhibited, and Shahn had gained numerous honors and an international reputation as a leading social realist and a talented artist who used his considerable and multifaceted skills on behalf of the poor and oppressed.
Chevlowe, Susan. Common Man, Mythic Vision: ThePaintings of Ben Shahn. 1998.
Greenfield, Howard. Ben Shahn: An Artist's Life. 1998.
Pohl, Frances. Ben Shahn. 1993.
David W. Levy
Ben Shahn (1898-1969), American painter, graphic artist, and photographer, was devoted to the figurative tradition. He was one of the most significant social critics among painters of the 20th century.
Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, Ben Shahn emigrated with his family to the United States in 1906. From the age of 15 to 18, Shahn was apprenticed to a New York lithographer. In 1919 he enrolled at New York University, completing his studies at the City College of New York in 1924. After 2 years studying at the National Academy of Design, Shahn traveled in Europe and North Africa. Returning to America, he had his first one-man show in 1929.
Shahn's mature style and his emphasis on specific social themes date from the 1930s. His art was influenced by photographer Walker Evans, with whom he shared quarters. In 1931-1932 Shahn painted 23 gouaches and 2 mural panels based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case. The best known is the Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti; executed in tempera, with elongated bodies and slight caricature of the faces, the work is a masterpiece of understatement. This style remains consistent throughout his work. Fifteen gouache studies (1932-1933) dealing with labor leader Tom Mooney aroused the interest of Mexican mural painter Diego Rivera. Shahn became Rivera's assistant on the murals for the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, New York City.
Shahn used techniques learned from Rivera in murals and panel paintings commissioned by numerous Federal agencies. The eight paintings on the theme of prohibition for the Public Works Arts Project are good; the one titled W.C.T.U. Parade (1933-1934) is best known. His mural for the Community Center of the Federal Housing Development in Roosevelt, N.J. (1937-1938), is the most typical. Shahn's themes were a variety of topical problems—from anti—semitism to unfair labor conditions; he framed them into a continuous wall plane that is subdivided by architectural devices. Though he borrowed the organizing motifs from Rivera, Shahn's murals are generally more readable and less crowded. Less well known are his photographs for the Farm Security Administration; typical is the one titled Arkansas Share Cropper's Family.
During the 1940s Shahn executed graphics for the Office of War Information and, later, for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Register, Vote, a 1944 employment poster for the CIO, shows his concern with social equality and his ability to integrate language and visual form in a coherent design. He had a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1947.
After the 1940s Shahn moved from what he called "social realism" to a "personal realism." He also increasingly turned to tempera painting and graphics. Yet his iconography was never "personal" or autobiographical. Rather, he reached a universal expression through the devices of symbolism and allegory, the stylized line, and the colorful palette, which are hallmarks of his style. Whether his subject was music or a theme after the Spanish artist Francisco Goya, he could evoke worlds with a single pen stroke or color overlay. Blind Botanist, a drawing for a painting (1954), demonstrates Shahn's ability to express the poignant, often tragic, state of mankind.
Shahn's Lucky Dragon series (1960-1962) visualizes the tragedy of the Japanese fishing vessel that sailed into an atomic testing area in 1954. Perhaps his greatest honor was his appointment as Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard University (1956-1957). Shahn then continued to work prolifically and with social responsibility. He taught and lectured at a variety of educational institutions.
Essential reading includes Shahn's Harvard lectures entitled The Shape of Content (1957). The best illustrations and general introduction to Shahn's work are in James Thrall Soby, Ben Shahn: His Graphic Art (1957) and Paintings (1963). The best critical study of Shahn is Seldon Rodman, Portrait of the Artist as an American: Ben Shahn, a Biography with Pictures (1951). □
SHAHN, BEN (1898–1969), U.S. painter and printmaker. Born in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, he was taken to the United States at the age of eight. He studied lithography and for many years supported himself and his family by means of commercial lithography. A liberal in outlook, Shahn attracted attention through his gouache paintings on the Sacco-Vanzetti case and the case of labor leader Tom Mooney. The Mexican artist Diego Rivera, also a liberal, hired Shahn as his assistant in painting the fresco Man at the Crossroads, for the rca Building in Rockefeller Center, New York. This controversial fresco was finally removed to Mexico City. During the Depression Shahn was commissioned by the government to paint several murals for public buildings. He helped form the Artists' Union and the American Artists' Congress. During World War ii, Shahn designed posters for the Office of War Information. He taught at several universities and museum art schools, had many one-man shows, and was represented at international shows such as the biennial exhibitions at Venice and São Paulo. In the winter of 1956–57 he gave a series of lectures at Harvard University, published under the title The Shape of Content (1957). Shahn often dealt with Jewish subject matter. He made drawings for the production of a play, The World of Sholom Aleichem (1953), and designed windows for Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York (1965). As a calligrapher, he repeatedly made use of the Hebrew alphabet, especially in the books Alphabet of Creation (1954) and Love and Joy about Letters (1963; for which he also wrote texts), and in a series of de luxe editions of the Haggadah (1965). Drawings of the Haggadah had been executed about 1930 and all but one of these were bought for the Jewish Museum, New York, and are now one of its most prized possessions. The Oriental touch in some of these drawings is due to Shahn's acquaintance with the Jews of *Djerba, where he spent almost a year. When he was seventy, several retrospective exhibitions of his works were held. Shahn raised the aesthetic level of graphic art in the United States. As a draftsman, he was often a commentator on the social scene, always outraged at injustice, but also amused by humanity's foibles and weakness.
S. Rodman, Portrait of the Artist as an American (1951); J.T. Soby, Ben Shahn, 2 vols. (Eng., 1963).