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Ben Shahn papers, 1879-1990, bulk 1933-1970

Biographical Note

Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was a social realist painter, muralist, printmaker, photographer, illustrator, and teacher who worked primarily in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey. He was most active in the 1930s through the 1950s and worked on several federally funded arts projects, including the Farm Security Administration's photographic documentation project of rural America during the Depression.
Ben Shahn was born in Kovno, Lithuania and immigrated with his family to the United States in 1906 where he settled in Brooklyn, and later Roosevelt, New Jersey, after becoming a naturalized citizen in 1918.
Following an apprenticeship as a lithographer from 1913-1917, Shahn studied at New York University, the City College of New York, and the National Academy of Design from 1919-1922. He married Tillie Goldstein in 1922 and they had two children, Judith and Ezra.
Two years after Shahn's first solo exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in 1930, his Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, a series of 23 gouaches about the Sacco and Vanzetti trial of the 1920s, was exhibited at the Downtown Gallery to critical and public acclaim. The exhibition marked the beginning of Shahn's reputation as one of the most important social realist painters in America. Shahn's commitment to social and political justice found a natural outlet in mural painting when, in 1933, he was hired to assist Diego Rivera on the labor and industry mural Man at the Crossroads, for New York City's Rockefeller Center. The mural was destroyed amid controversy in 1933 before it was completed, but Shahn had learned much about the art of fresco painting during the project and was inspired by the potential of the mural as a unique art form for presenting life's struggles and stories to a large public audience. Between 1933 and 1937 Shahn worked on various murals for other buildings, including New York's Central Park Casino (circa 1934) and Riker's Island Prison (1934), none of which saw completion. In 1937, however, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) commissioned Shahn to execute a mural for the Community Center in the town of Jersey Homesteads, later Roosevelt, New Jersey, which Shahn completed in 1938. Shahn settled in Jersey Homesteads the following year and remained there for the rest of his life. Other important mural commissions followed for the Bronx Central Post office (1939) and the Social Security Building in Washington DC (1942).
One of Shahn's assistants on the Jersey Homesteads mural was Bernarda Bryson, whom he had met in 1933 when she came to New York to interview Rivera about the Rockefeller Center mural controversy for an Ohio newspaper. Shahn and Bryson became lifetime companions and had three children, Susanna, Jonathan and Abigail, although they did not marry until shortly before Shahn's death in 1969. Shahn and Tillie Goldstein were divorced in 1944.
Shahn had enrolled with the federal Public Works of Art Project in 1934, and between 1935 and 1938 he and Bryson travelled across country as Shahn photographed poverty-stricken areas and documented rural life for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Resettlement Agency. Shahn's interest in photography developed in the early 1930s when, encouraged by his friendship with Walker Evans, he began photographing street scenes and people in New York City. He later used the images as the basis for many of his prints and paintings.
In 1942 Shahn began working for the Office of War Information (OWI) and was instructed to produce posters and pamphlets explaining to citizens the necessities of wartime, such as the need for secrecy and food rationing. Ultimately, only two of Shahn's posters were ever used; the rest were rejected as being too harsh for their intended audience. Shahn later worked for the Congress of Industrial Organization Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC), producing posters for the 1944 campaign to re-elect Roosevelt, who he believed in deeply. He was promoted to director of the CIO's Graphic Arts Division for the 1946 congressional campaign following Roosevelt's death, but that job ended when the election went poorly for the Democratic party.
Shahn returned increasingly to painting and a retrospective of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947. He also became more active in academia as an accomplished writer, teacher and lecturer. He received honorary doctorates from Princeton University and Harvard University, and become the Charles Eliot Norton professor at Harvard in 1956. Shahn's Norton lectures were collected and published as the influential The Shape of Content in 1957. He also began to work as a commercial artist for a variety of companies and publications including CBS, Time, Harper's, and the Container Corporation of America. Shahn believed, however, that the artist's ideas and integrity must always be reflected in his commercial art. He refused to compromise on this point and was very selective in his choice of commercial commissions. Shahn illustrated many books and articles, designed sets for stage productions such as New York Export: Opus Jazz, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and designed mural mosaics for synagogues, universities and private homes.
Since the 1930s Shahn had been represented by Edith Halpert at the Downtown Gallery, but his relationship with her was always contentious on the subject of payments Shahn received for commercial work, and became increasingly so as his income from such sources increased. Finally, in 1968, Shahn wrote to Halpert telling her that after ten years of "an accumulation of ill-feeling, discomfort and recrimination between us" he felt compelled to end their dealer-artist relationship.
By the time of Shahn's break with Halpert his health had begun to fail. He died of a heart attack following surgery in a New York City hospital on March 14, 1969.