Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, Ben Shahn spent his childhood studying the Bible to learn about the history of his Jewish ancestors. In 1906, he and his family immigrated to the United States and resided in Brooklyn. After finishing elementary school in New York, Shahn became a lithographer’s apprentice. While working as an apprentice, Shahn mastered lettering, which would become an important facet of his social realist art. Earning wages through jobs requiring illustration or lettering, Shahn saved enough to attend classes at New York University, the City College of New York and the National Academy of Design and eventually to travel to Europe.
In the 1920’s Shahn ventured to France where political unrest seemed imminent from the false life imprisonment of the first Jewish officer of the Ministry of War, Alfred Dreyfus. Shahn saw the social injustice unfold in front of him and began to create portraits whose themes shaped his art throughout his career. Upon returning to America, Shahn became intrigued with significant court cases and social problems, which he artfully articulated in his work. In the 1930’s, after a show at the Downtown Gallery, Shahn joined the Farm Security Administration and traveled throughout America with Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to document the devastation of the American farmers.
In May of 1933, Shahn assisted Diego Rivera during his execution of the Rockefeller Center mural. He took the advice of Walker Evans and began using a camera to capture city scenes ranging from storefronts to people engaging in everyday activity. In 1934 Shahn worked with the WPA and was commissioned to do various murals throughout Roosevelt, New Jersey. He also completed a mural at the Bronx Central Post Office. During World War II, Shahn created many anti-fascist posters for the Office of War Information. Towards the end of his life, Shahn designed sets for plays and created murals for synagogues, homes and museums.
Throughout Ben Shahn’s life, his work was featured in Art Front, Fortune and Harper’s Magazine. Shahn participated in several group shows at The Museum of Modern Art and the Tate and was given several one-man exhibitions at the Downtown Gallery.
Works by Ben Shahn are represented in many museum collections, including The Art Institute of Chicago (IL); The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown (OH); the Fogg Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge (MA); and the Tate in London (UK).