This Day in Jewish History

1898: An Artist Who Painted His Politics Is Born

Ben Shahn's social realism focused on social injustices, the Great Depression, and Jewish themes like the Passover story.

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September 12, 1898, was the birthdate of Ben Shahn, the highly topical painter, printmaker and photographer whose works still serve as a running commentary on the historical trends of 20th-century American history. Shahn’s highly accessible style and clear political sentiments meant that his work was both extremely popular and recognizable, but also led to his being dismissed as a mere “illustrator,” sometimes by those who didn’t share his opinions.

Ben Shahn was born in Kovno (today, Kaunas), Lithuania, then part of Russia. He was the oldest of Joshua Hessel Shahn and Gittel (nee Lieberman) Shahn's three children. In 1906, after Joshua, a socialist and outspoken opponent of the czar, had been exiled to Siberia, Gittel and the children made their way to the United States, where they eventually were reunited with the father.

The family settled in Brooklyn, New York, where Joshua, originally a woodcarver, began working as a carpenter. Back in Russia, Ben had been educated at a Talmud Torah, and inculcated in the stories of the Hebrew Bible, and in the U.S., he was encouraged by his parents to read widely. In his teens, he also served as an apprentice to an uncle who had a lithography shop. He received his high school degree through night study at the Educational Alliance, but then followed that with biology studies at New York University, and later art at City College and the National Academy of Design.

Beginning in 1924, Shahn spent two years traveling in Europe and North Africa with Tillie Goldstein, who had become his wife two years earlier. In 1927, he left for another two years of travel. His exposure to the Parisian art world convinced him of what he didn’t want to be, but he was still unsure about which direction pursue. In her 1993 book about Shahn, Frances Pohl quotes from something the artist later wrote about that period:

“I didn’t know where I stood when I came back to America in 1929. I had seen all the right pictures and read all the right books – Vollard, Meier-Graffe, David Hume. But still it didn’t add up to anything. Here I am, I said to myself, [31] years old, the son of a carpenter. I like stories and people. The French school is not for me. Vollard is wrong for me. If I am to be a painter I must show the world how it looks through my eyes, not theirs.”  

What emerged from Shahn’s unsettled feeling was his own form of social realism: Its earliest and strongest expression was a series of 23 gouaches he produced and exhibited in 1932 about the trial and execution of Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the two Italian immigrant anarchists who were electrocuted in 1927 for a robbery-killing on the basis of highly suspect evidence.

Arthur Rothstein

Following that, Shahn served as an assistant to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in his ill-fated 1933 project in Rockefeller Center, a work called “Man at the Crossroads” that was destroyed by the Rockefellers before it was ever seen by the public. (Rivera had included some highly provocative political images in the work, as well as taking a visual poke at John D. Rockefeller himself.) Other public murals Shahn created during the 1930s include 13 works done at a Bronx post office based on Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing," and a fresco mural for the planned New Jersey town of Jersey Homesteads, later renamed Roosevelt, telling the story of the largely Jewish immigrant community. Thematically, the mural follows the narrative pattern of the Passover Haggadah, of slavery, deliverance and redemption. (Shahn and his second wife, Bernarda Bryson, also moved to Homesteads in 1938, and lived there until the end of his life.)

In the mid-1930s, Shahn was hired by the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal body, to travel the American South and photograph its residents. In this he joined Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, creating some of the best-known photographic images of the Great Depression.

During World War II, the Office of War Information employed him to create posters, but most of what he produced was not enthusiastically patriotic enough to be distributed. He captured the brutality and destruction of war, themes that weren’t deemed appropriate for public propaganda.

From 1947 until 1959, Shahn did extensive graphic work for the Columbia Broadcasting System, including promotional work but also, for example, images commissioned by the TV documentary unit run by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. These included a series of sketches and paintings of Louis Armstrong for a 1956 profile of the musician. He also did commissioned work for such magazines as Time and Fortune, and was successful enough that he could accept only jobs that matched his political beliefs.

One of Shahn’s most well-known Jewish works was a 1965 Haggadah, which incorporated watercolor images he had created three decades earlier. It also includes his distinctive form of Hebrew lettering.

Shahn represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale in 1954, and was invited to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University in 1956-7. But he was also called in for questioning by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s, and was rejected artistically by formalist critics like Clement Greenberg. Yet the same year he was questioned by the HUAC, Shahn also was the subject of a 10-page spread in a State Department magazine distributed in the Soviet Union. According to The New York Times, “the Russians did not like what they saw and declared that his paintings and sketches reflected abstract decadence.”

Ben Shahn died of a heart attack following surgery in New York, on March 14, 1969. He was 70 years old.