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

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Stephanie Ashley
Scope and Contents note
The papers of social realist painter, photographer, illustrator, printmaker, and teacher Ben Shahn (1898-1969) measure 24.8 linear feet and date from 1879-1990, with the bulk of the material dating from 1933-1970. The bulk of the collection consists of over 14 linear feet of incoming letters from artists, writers, colleagues, publishers, art organizations, galleries, and universities and colleges. Also found are biographical materials, project and source files, printed material, artwork by Shahn and others, photographs taken of and by Shahn, interview transcripts, sound recordings of interviews and a motion picture film.
Biographical material and family records include a 1924 passport for Shahn and his first wife, Tillie, biographical sketches of Shahn, and award certificates received by him.
Letters are primarily written to Shahn from family members, artists, writers, colleagues, publishers, art organizations, galleries, and universities and colleges. Notable correspondents include Leonard Baskin, Alexander Calder, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Joseph Hirsch, Leo Lionni, John Bartlow Martin, George and Marian Nakashima, Clifford Odets, Charles Olson, Robert Osborn, Diego Rivera, Jerome Robbins, Selden Rodman, James Thrall Soby, Raphael Soyer, and William Carlos Williams. A small number of scattered letters from Shahn can also be found throughout the series.
Project files document approximately twenty-one of Shahn's commissions, including murals for the community center at Jersey Homesteads, the Bronx Central Annex Post Office, the Social Security Building in Washington D.C. , and the William E. Grady Vocational High School. The files also document his involvement in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Roosevelt, in addition to projects for schools, temples and private homes.
Financial and legal records include consignment records, loan agreements, royalty statements and receipts for artwork sold.
Notes and writings are by Shahn and others including Alan Dugan, W. H. Ferry, Theodore Gusten, and John Bartlow Martin. They include lists of artwork, many of which are annotated.
Artwork includes a sketchbook and several unbound sketches and lettering by Shahn, in addition to drawings and prints by others including Shahn's children, Mario Casetta and Stefan Martin.
Source files contain printed material and photographs relating to topics depicted by Shahn in his artwork such as children, dams, farming, houses, industry, mines and miners, slums, war and workers. These files also contain scattered photographic prints by FSA and OWI photographers including Shahn, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, and John Vachon.
Printed material includes news clippings covering Shahn and his career as well as subjects of interest to Shahn. Also found are exhibition catalogs and announcements for exhibitions for Shahn and others, and reproductions of Shahn's artwork including publications illustrated by him.
Photographs are of Shahn, his family and friends and colleagues including Alexander Calder, Jerome Robbins, Charles Sheeler, David Smith and William Zorach. Also included are photographs taken by Shahn of New York City and for the FSA in the 1930s, as well as photographs of artwork by Shahn. Photographs by others include one photo each by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein.
The collection also contains transcripts of eight radio, television and motion picture interviews of Shahn and a reel of 16mm motion picture film from the BBC-TV program "Monitor," in addition to sound recordings of interviews of Shahn by Tony Schwartz and Arlene Francis. Artifacts include a Christmas greeting in the form of a sock.
The Ben Shahn papers were donated to the Archives of American Art in several installments between 1967-1991 by Shahn's widow, Bernarda Bryson Shahn who also lent materials for microfilming in 1969. Jean Shahn, Ben Shahn's daughter-in-law and estate representative, donated one additional sketch in 2018.
Separated Materials note
The Archives of American Art also holds material lent for microfilming (reel N70-6) including addresses and essays by Shahn, seven royalty statements, and three letters from publishers. Many of the writings found on this reel were included in subsequent donations. All other lent material was returned to the lender and is not described in the collection container inventory.
Related Archival Materials note
The Archives of American Art holds four oral history interviews with Ben Shahn: 1964 Apr. 14 interview conducted by Richard K. Doud for the Archives of American Art New Deal and the Arts Project in which Shahn speaks of his travels and work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the American image as portrayed by FSA; 1965 Jan. 17 interview; 1965 Oct. 3. interview conducted by Harlan Phillips for the Archives of American Art New Deal and the Arts Project; and 1968 Sept. 27 interview conducted by Forrest Selvig. Most of these interviews have transcripts available online.
The Archives also holds the Bernarda Bryson Shahn papers, circa 1947-2005, and two oral history interviews with Bernarda Bryson Shahn: 1983 Apr. 29 and 1995 July 3.
Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art
Processing Information
The Ben Shahn papers were received in several installments and microfilmed on reels D143-D148, 133-135 and 5006-5027. Funding from the Sarah I. Schieffelin Residuary Trust supported a portion of the microfilming. The microfilm was described in a finding aid by Jean Fitzgerald in 1995. All accessions were physically and intellectually merged, processed, arranged and described in 2009-2010 by Stephanie Ashley and digitized in 2011 with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art. 2018 edition processed in 2019 by Ryan Evans.