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Ben Shahn: Passion for Justice
timeline by and about photography for painting story of a mural realism vs. abstraction
’20s | ’30s | ’40s | ’50s | ’60s

Timelineshahn created art that was integrally connected with history and politics


Kovno, Lithuania

Born September 12th in Kovno, Lithuania.



Father Hessel Shahn is exiled to Siberia for his socialist and anti-czarist activities.


photo of Shahn's family

Family immigrates to the United States, settling in Brooklyn. Reunited with father.



Apprenticed to a commercial lithographer instead of attending high school. Develops a love of lettering.



Tillie Goldstein

Marries Tillie Goldstein on August 8th.


"The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti"

Nicola Sacco & Bartolomeo Vanzetti are executed on August 23rd. Several years later, between 1931 and 1933, Shahn creates a series of images based on the trial and execution of the Italian anarchists, who many believe were framed for murder (there was strong anti-immigrant feeling at the time).

"The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti" (1931-32)
Tempera on canvas, 84 1/2" x 48"
© Estate of Ben Shahn /Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY



Tillie and Ben take two extensive trips to Europe, visiting Paris, Italy and North Africa.

Daughter Judith born in Paris July 14, 1929. In America, the stock market crashes. Family returns to America as the Great Depression is starting.




Shahn's first important solo exhibit at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York City; also included in an exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art.


Ben Shahn

Shahn has a breakthrough with a series he creates based on the Dreyfus affair (a late 19th century anti-Semitic scandal involving a French officer). He shares a studio in Manhattan with Walker Evans who introduces him to photography.



Shahn works as an assistant to Diego Rivera on the Mexican artist’s ill-fated mural for Rockefeller Center in New York. Son Ezra born November 12, 1933.


Bernarda handing out leaflets

Meets Bernarda Bryson, a social activist and artist. A year later, Shahn leaves Tillie and their children and moves to Washington.

Bernarda Bryson handing out "Art Front" (the publication of the Artists’ Union).


Poster for Resettlement Administration

Shahn documents Depression-era America in prints, posters, and photographs for New Deal government agencies, specifically the Farm Security Administration. For the FSA, Shahn takes photographs on extensive trips throughout South and Mid-West. He travels with Bernarda, who later becomes his wife. Daughter Susanna born October 6, 1936.

"Years of Dust" (1937)
Resettlement Administration


detail of mural: "Resources of America"

Creates large-scale public murals for the community center in Jersey Homesteads, NJ (later renamed Roosevelt) and the Bronx post office. Bronx mural contains quote by Walt Whitman that is attacked as "irreligious" by prominent members of the Catholic Church.

Moves to Jersey Homesteads where he lives for the rest of his life. Son Jonathan is born June 17, 1938.

"Resources of America" (1939)
Bronx General Post Office



Poster "This is Nazi Brutality"

Creates large mural for the Social Security Building in Washington, D.C. On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor draws the United States into WWII. Joins the Office of War Information (OWI) as a graphic artist. Daughter Abigail is born July 31, 1940.

"This is Nazi Brutality" (1942)
Office of War Information
Photo-Offset in colors


painting: "Italian Landscape II: Europa"

Creates paintings reflecting on the desolation and loneliness of war. Begins to accept work as a commercial artist for organizations such as CBS, Time, Fortune, and Harper’s.

"Liberation" (1945)
Tempera on cardboard mounted on composition board, 29 3/4" x 40"
© Estate of Ben Shahn /Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


lithograph: "Welders"

Becomes involved in union work as the director of graphic design for the CIO-PAC.

"Welders" (1944)
CIO Political Action Committee
Lithograph in colors


Shahn family photo

Has retrospective exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. Contributes to Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party presidential campaign. According to Look, is one of the ten best artists in America.

(From left: Bernarda Bryson, Susanna, Jonathan, Abigail and Ben Shahn)



Poster for Adlai Stevenson

Makes drawings at Democratic Convention; contributes to Adlai Stevenson’s Presidential campaign.

© Estate of Ben Shahn /Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY



Represents the United States at the Venice Biennale (along with artist Willem de Kooning).


illustration "His Widow"

As the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, Shahn gives a series of lectures later published by Harvard University Press as The Shape of Content.

Illustrates article in Harper’s about the Lucky Dragon, a fishing boat caught in atomic test fallout.

"His Widow" (1957) from the Lucky Dragon series
Brush and ink, 4 1/2" x 7 1/2"
© Estate of Ben Shahn /Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY



Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer questions about his alleged communist affiliations.




Creates a series of paintings and drawings that he exhibits at the Downtown Gallery as The Saga of the Lucky Dragon.


Poster "Stop H Bomb Tests"

Is a founding member of Graphic Artists for SANE (Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy).

"Stop H Bomb Tests" (1960's)
Serigraph in colors
© Estate of Ben Shahn /Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


Time Magazine cover: MLK

Creates portfolio of prints for the American Civil Liberties Union, stained-glass windows for the Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, and a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the cover of Time.

© Estate of Ben Shahn /Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY



Creates an outdoor mosaic mural for Syracuse University in which he returns to the theme of Sacco and Vanzetti. Daughter Susanna dies on May 8th.


Ben Shahn

Dies March 14th at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.



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