Ben Shahn (American, September 12, 1898–March 14, 1969) was a painter, lithographer, and photographer best known for his left-wing political leanings, works of social realism, and The Shape of Content, a publication of his lectures. Shahn was born in Kovno, Lithuania, when the country was still occupied by the Russian Empire. In 1902, Shahn's father, Joshua Hessel, was exiled to Siberia. Shahn then moved to Vilkomir, Lithuania, with his mother, Gittel, and his two siblings. Their family moved to the United States in 1906 to join their father who had fled from exile. After settling in Brooklyn, NY, Shahn began to train in lithography and graphic design, and his favorite medium was egg tempera. In 1919, Shahn enrolled in New York University to study Biology before entering the City College in 1921 to study Art. He also studied Art at the National Academy of Design. In the 1920s, Shahn and his wife traveled around Africa and Europe to study the works of renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) and Raoul Dufy (French, 1877–1953).

In 1933, Shahn worked as an assistant of Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886–1957); at this time, Rivera was working on the mural at the Rockefeller Center in New York. Two years later, Shahn was recommended by Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975) to join the Farm Security Administration photographic group. One of the artist’s most famous works is the fresco mural he did for the Jersey Homesteads' community center. Shahn also worked on murals for the state on the Federal Security Building and the Bronx Central Annex Post Office.

During the Second World War, Shahn made a series of paintings laced with anti-war sentiments. An example of his work during this period is Death on the Beach. Shahn's famous portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. is an example of work he did commercially for Time. He also did commercial works for CBS, Fortune, and Harper's. In 1954, Shahn represented the United States at the Venice Biennale alongside Willem de Kooning (Dutch, 1904–1997).

In the last two decades of his life, Shahn was active in academics and received honorary doctorates from several universities, such as Princeton University in Princeton, NY, and Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. He had exhibited at institutions including Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York, NY, in 1930, and New Jersey State Museum, in Trenton, in 1969. His works can be found in numerous galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Shahn died in New York in 1969.

Timeline

1898
Born in Kovno (Kaunus), Lithuania
1906
Emigrated with his family to New York in 1906
1913
Served as an apprentice to a lithographer
1917–1921
Studied art at New York University, City College of New York and the National Academy of Design
1922
Married Tillie Goldstein
1925–1929
Traveled several times to Europe and North Africa with his wife
1929
Birth of daughter Judith
1930
First solo exhibition at The Downtown Gallery in New York. A work is also exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art
1930
His reputation as a leading artist in the social realist movement is cemented
1931
Shared a studio with photographer Walker Evans in New York
1931–1933
Painted his most famous series of works: “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti,” followed by “The Mooney Series”
1933
Worked with muralist Diego Rivera for a mural at Rockefeller Center in New York
1933
Birth of son Ezra
1935
After divorcing Tillie, remarried to Bernarda Bryson
1936
Birth of daughter Susanna by Bernarda
1937
Moved to Jersey Homesteads (Roosevelt), New Jersey
1933–1938
Worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, recording images of Depression era America
1938
Birth of son Jonathan
1937–1943
Created several public murals, including one for the Bronx Courthouse, New York
1947
Retrospective exhibition is shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
1954
With Willem de Kooning, chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale
1956–1957
Served as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. His Norton Lectures are published by Harvard as “The Shape of Content”
1969
Died in New York, NY

Exhibitions

2007
American Modernism, The de Yound Museum, San Francisco, CA
2007
For the People, The Frances Lehmen Loeb Art Center, Pougheepsie, NY
2006
Starting at Zero - Black Mountain College 1933-57, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire (England)
2005
The Bitter Years, Bob Rauschenberg Gallery, Ft. Myers, FL
2004
American Expressionism - Art and Social Change, 1920s-1950s, Mary and Leigh Blcok Museum of Art, Evanston, IL
2003
New York - Capitale de la photographie (1900-2000), Musee de l'Elysee, Lausanne
2002
New York: Capital of Photography, MMoCA - THe Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WI
2001
Greed and Other Recent Acquisitions, ICP - International Center of Photography, New York City, NY
2000
Propaganda and dreams - photography of the 1930s in the USSR and the USA, The State Russian Museum - Mikhailovsky Castle, St. Petersburg
1999
Propaganda and dreams - Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US, ICP - International Center of Photorgraphy, New York City, NY
1998
The Posters American Style, Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL