Shahn was born into a family of Jewish craftsmen who emigrated in 1906, settling in New York.
As a youth he worked as a lithographer’s apprentice in Heisenberg’s Lithography Shop in Manhattan, and in the evenings he attended high school in Brooklyn. He later attended New York University and the National Academy of Design.
He also studied the art of Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee. In 1931-33 he achieved fame with a series of gouache paintings inspired by the Sacco-Vanzetti case, combining realism and abstraction in the service of sharp sociopolitical comment.
Shahn’s first one-man exhibition was held in 1930 at the Downtown Gallery, New York and consisted of paintings made on the island of Djerba, off Tunisia.
Although Shan had yet to take up the camera, his early gouaches owed much to photography. In preparing his early series of paintings – The Dreyfus Case (1931), The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1932), and Tom Mooney (1933) – Shahn relied heavily in phonograph of the protagonists.
His interest in photography was furthered by his friendship with Walker Evans. The two met in 1929, and they subsequently shared a studio.
In 1933 he assisted Diego Rivera with his Rockefeller Center mural and worked for the Public Works of Art Project.
In 1935-38 he depicted rural poverty while working as an artist and photographer for the Farm Security Administration.
After World War II he concentrated on easel painting, poster design and book illustration. His well-known 1965 portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
Ben Shahn (1898 – 1969)