Ben Shahn Bio

BEN SHAHN  1898 – 1969

Known for his linear and abstracted images of humanity, Shahn became the leading American social realist of the 1930’s following in the tradition of Goya and Daumier.   Shahn launched his artistic career with the famous 1932 paintings of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and thus began a lifelong search to express compassion for the human condition.   His subjects ranged from war-torn angst to social decay and the lonely isolation of the individual.  Consistently, throughout a multifaceted career as painter, draftsman, photographer, printmaker and designer, Shahn depicted images of contemporary events imbuing them with his deep personal, political and social views.     

Ben Shahn emigrated with his family at age eight from Lithuania to New York in 1906.  His apprenticeship to a commercial lithographer at age 14 defined his artistic direction and style.  Shahn’s initiation to this trade consisted of 4 years of grinding stones and “making letters – thousands and thousands of letters until I should know to perfection every curve, every serif, every thick element of a letter and every thin one”.  Although he was employed to learn the trade of commercial printmaking, Shahn later wrote, “if learning the craft was my ostensible reason and purpose, my private one was to learn to draw – and to draw always better and better”.  Shahn continued to support himself as a freelance commercial lithographer by receiving commissions for posters, lettering and illustrations until 1930 when he was able to devote himself entirely to his art.    

By his own admission printmaking was primarily a means for Shahn to disseminate his drawings; the power of the image was more important to him than his method and medium.  Shahn produced his first artistic prints in lithographic tusche while employed with the WPA and struggling to establish his career as a painter.  The skill he acquired as a printmaker is demonstrated through a suite of 24 lithographs, illustrating a passage from the novel For the Sake of a Single Verse by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  Shahn evokes each line of Rilke’s autobiographical prose elegantly through masterful and spare use of line and color.

In Shahn’s consistent effort to promote his message, he adopted and perfected other methods of printmaking.  An early and extremely rare serigraph, Immigrant Family, was produced as his first trial print in 1941.  Better known of his serigraphs are Phoenix, 1952, and Warsaw, 1943, 1963.  In 1942-43, through the Office of War Information, Shahn executed a number of anti-fascist offset lithographic posters including This is Nazi Brutality and We French Workers Warn You.  His love of letters – particularly Hebrew script – is manifested in his late works such as Maimonides with Calligraphy, 1965, a wood-engraving in black and sepia and Decalogue, 1961, a serigraph with hand coloring and applied gold leaf.

Active to the end of his career, Shahn continued to adopt new themes and mediums in effort to define the human condition and his own time. Although known primarily as a printmaker and painter, he was also a noted writer and an extraordinary lecturer and teacher.  Yet he disliked labels and most likely would have rejected any of these titles as suggested through his statement, “I believe that if it were left to the artist to choose their own labels, most would choose none”.