Ben Shahn
Biography of American Social Realist Painter, Printmaker, Illustrator.

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Ben Shahn (1898-1969)


Early Life
Fresco Painting
Post-War "Personal Realism"
The Lucky Dragon

Best Known Works

"Coal miner's child." West Virginia.
Photograph by Ben Shahn,
Farm Security Administration.

Years of Dust (1937) Poster for
the Resettlement Administration.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.


One of the important modern artists in twentieth century American art, Shahn is associated with the Realism movement - specifically the Social Realism school of the 1930s - and many of his works explore issues of social and international concern. A master of several different media within the area of decorative as well as fine art - including painting, design, printmaking, photography, poster art, as well as mosaics, stained glass and book illustration - he also wrote about aesthetics, and in 1956-7 was Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard University. Heir to the traditions of the Ashcan School of New York, Shahn is best remembered as one of the most socially aware artists - verging arguably on socialist realism, at least in his collaboration with the Marxist painter Diego Rivera - who took as his subjects the human experience. His frescos, easel paintings and posters express his concern for social reform, making his works powerful protests against injustice and inhumanity.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

For the best works, see:
Greatest 20th century Paintings.


Early Life

Born in Lithuania, Shahn emigrated with his family to the United States in 1906 and settled in Brooklyn, New York. During the period 1913-1917, he attended High School at night and worked as an assistant to a lithographic printer during the day. Until about 1930, he continued to support himself through lithography.

Shahn toured Europe and North Africa in 1925 and again in 1927. Back in New York in 1929, he exhibited his watercolour painting of North African scenes and produced a series of 12 border illustrations for an edition of a Haggadah, the book containing the liturgy of the Seder Service for the Jewish festival of Passover.


In 1931 Shahn succeeded in gaining public recognition through a series of 23 gouache and two large panel paintings, on the subject of the two Italian-American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Venzetti, whose trial and executions in 1927 had caused an international scandal. In 1932 he painted a group of 15 gouaches and a tempera panel about the case of the labour leader Tom Mooney, who was accused of involvement in a bombing. Shahn's work was especially admired by the Mexican murals painters like Diego Rivera (1886-1957), David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) and Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) - founder members of the Mexican Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. Rivera asked Shahn to assist him with a large fresco mural painting for the lobby of the RCA Building in the Rockefeller Centre, New York city. Although the fresco was destroyed after completion because of it's political content, Shahn was highly enthusiastic about the medium.



Fresco Painting

In 1937 Shahn was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to complete a large, single fresco painting in the community centre of a federal housing project for garment workers in Roosevelt, New Jersey. The mural depicts the arrival of immigrants to the United States - including Albert Einstein - after fleeing persecution in Europe, as well as scenes of sweatshop labour, the Triangle Shirt factory fire, and images of social reform symbolized by new homes and better working conditions. [See also the photographic work of his FSA colleague Dorothea Lange (1895-1965.)] The following year Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson won a commission from the US Treasury to paint thirteen large-scale fresco panels on the theme of industry and agriculture for the lobby of the Bronx Central Annex Post Office in New York. During the period 1940-1942 Shahn concentrated on frescos for the main corridor of the Federal Security Building in Washington DC.

See also: Walker Evans (1903-75), best known for his FSA photographs of southern America during the Great Depression.

In 1941, following the entry of the United States into World War II, Shahn joined the graphic arts division of the Office of War Information. He produced a number of outstanding posters and painted numerous works in which he demonstrated his sympathy for the plight of the ruined countries and people involved in the war.

Post-War "Personal Realism"

After the war, Shahn went back to easel-painting, turning to allegory and symbolism, and became more interested in what he called "personal realism". In 1948 Harper's magazine asked Shahn to illustrate an account of a Chicago tenement fire in which a tenant called Hickman had lost four children. Hickman had then killed his landlord, whom he believed had deliberately started the fire. Unlike the more realist documentation of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, in Allegory (1948) Shahn symbolized the tenement fire as a raging beast under whose belly lie Hickman's dead children.

Shahn also devoted more time to non-political decorative art, becoming active in the design of stained glass and mosaic art, and also earned money as a magazine and book illustrator. From the early 1950s, he spent more time writing about art, and in 1952 published Paragraphs on Art - a book of essays and articles. In 1956-7 he was appointed Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard University.

The Lucky Dragon

In 1962 Shahn completed what many regard as his finest works of oil painting, on a theme entitled The Lucky Dragon. The 11 oils, along with numerous sketches and examples of preparatory drawing, were inspired by the tragedy in 1954 of the Japanese fishing boat Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon), which unwittingly sailed into the Bikini Atoll in the North Pacific where H-bombs were being tested. The Lucky Dragon and her crew were showered with radioactive dust. Shahn represented the radioactive cloud above the boat as a flying monster in We Did Not Know What Happened to Us (1960).

Paintings by Ben Shahn can be seen in many of the best art museums in America.

• For biographies of other modern Social Realist artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more details of painting, see: Homepage.

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