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BEN-ZION (1897–1987), U.S. painter, graphic artist, and sculptor. Born Ben-Zion Weinman in the Ukraine, he was the son of a cantor and at one time planned to enter the rabbinate. His father discouraged his early artistic interest, but Ben-Zion prevailed and by the age of 17 traveled to Vienna to study art. After the art academy rejected him because of antisemitism, he wrote poetry, plays, and fairy tales in Hebrew.

In 1920 he settled in America, where he found little interest in his writing. He began teaching Hebrew to support himself and then in the early 1930s returned to painting. He used his art to comment on the rise of fascism in Europe, events he felt could not be adequately explored with words. Largely self-taught, Ben-Zion visited the museums of New York City to learn his new trade. His first painting on a large scale, Friday Evening (1933, Jewish Museum, New York), depicts a Sabbath dinner table as recalled from his family home. Ben-Zion supported himself by working odd jobs until the establishment of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project. Under the auspices of the wpa, Ben-Zion thrived and galleries began to show his work. In 1936, after his first one-man show at the Artists' Gallery in New York, Ben-Zion joined "The Ten," which included such progressive artists as Mark *Rothko and Ilya *Bolotowsky. The group exhibited together until 1942.

His work steers away from pure representation, but even when eschewing academic modes, Ben-Zion maintains elements of realism. He imaginatively reinterpreted biblical scenes, a staple of the art world for centuries. His first biblical painting, The Prophet in the Desert (1935), was followed by many others, such as Ruth and Boaz (1948). Indeed, over 150 of Ben-Zion's paintings are of biblical subjects, reflecting the yeshivah education of his early years in Eastern Europe. Thirty-nine of these paintings were shown at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1948, and he had a retrospective there in 1959.

A series of 17 works, given the title De Profundis (Out of the Depths), express the artist's distress at the events of the Holocaust, while also functioning as a memorial to the Jews murdered under the Nazi regime. These paintings show only the figures' heads, often distorted and painted in muted color. The suffering of these figures is rendered by a strong linear structure.

His etchings of biblical subjects were collected in several volumes, including Biblical Themes (1951), Prophets (1952), and The Book of Ruth, Job, and Song of Songs (1954).

In 1959 Ben-Zion began sculpting in iron, one of the most difficult media in which to work. The sculptural quality of the figures in his paintings seems to have led to this new medium. As with his painting, Jewish themes preoccupy his sculptures, such as Sacrifice of Isaac (1961) and Moses Dropping the Tablets (1979).


Ben-Zion and S. Kayser, Ben-Zion, 19331959: A Retrospect (1959); E. Grossman, Art and Tradition (1967); L. Dubin and T. Shalem, Ben-Zion: Iron Sculpture (1985).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]