My old teacher once said, nobody draws a chair like Ben Shahn.  

- Richard Merkin, RISD 1985 

Ben Shahn 
American, born Lithuania. 1898–1969

Ben Shahn was born in Lithuania in 1898 into a family of Jewish craftsmen. His father’s anti-czarist activities forced the family to immigrate to the United States in 1906. Shahn grew up in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn. He became an apprentice in a Manhattan lithographic firm, finishing high school at night and later taking classes at New York University, City College of New York, and the National Academy of Design. Shahn saw his art as a means to combat injustice and raise social awareness. 

Throughout his career Shahn’s style retained the linear bias of a master draughtsman, which proved to be effective in his satirical depictions of social types. He had his first solo exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in 1930, and his series of paintings of the trial and execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti established his reputation and led to further explorations of trials with political implications.

Ben and his wife Bernarda  

Diego Rivera, the Mexican painter, admired Shahn’s work and invited him to assist with murals Rivera was painting for Rockefeller Center’s RCA Building. (When a portrait of Lenin was discovered among the figures Rivera had depicted, the murals were removed.) Responding strongly to the public nature of this art form, Shahn painted murals for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), notably those in the Bronx Central Annex Post Office and the Federal Security Building in Washington, D.C. A painter and photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) between 1935 and 1938, and later known for his illustrations and prints, Shahn was skilled in many mediums. He became an enormously popular illustrator during the 50's working for big clients such as Columbia records, Time, and Fortune. Rumor has it that when Vogue magazine asked him to do a spread for them his price was too much. They turned to a young illustrator named Andy Warhol who could copy Shahn's line work. 

Shahn's studio,  present day.

At the height of his career Shahn was suddenly branded as a Communist by the various organizations and was completely blacklisted in the field and never received another freelance job assignment again. Not only did he face F.B.I. questioning and the House Un-American Activities Committee in the McCarthy period, he was also blackballed by the ascendant formalist criticism taking hold of the art world, with Clement Greenberg leading the attack.( These allegations were proven false, but the damage was already done ) Struggling to make a living, he concentrated his work toward galleries and began receiving numerous religious commissions including stain glass window projects from temples and synagogues across and country.
 Shahn stayed active until the very end of his career becoming a distinguished lecturer, teacher, and writer. He died in New York in 1969.

One of Shahn's stained glass windows

Shahn in his studio c. 1950's

Jonathan Shahn  
( Ben's son)  in his studio, present day

hand mixed colors by Shahn in his studio.

Shahn's bedroom, present day. Furniture + interiors designed by artist and good friend George Nakashima.

The Shahns surrounded themselves with lively collections: Indian illuminated manuscripts, ancient classical statues and 20th-century works by their friends, including the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jacob Lawrence and the woodworker George Nakashima.

read this book!

{for Goldy and Martha E.
two fabulous artists!} 

Thanks for all the amazing work BS.