Ben Shahn: Williamsburg’s Greatest Artist Ever?

Ben Shahn (Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

Ben Shahn’s name today is obscure, but Shahn was perhaps one of the greatest artists ever to come out of Williamsburg. Born in Lithuania, Shahn grew up in the Southside in real poverty (1898-1969). Recognized during his lifetime as one of the greatest American painters of his generation, he was also a highly talented photographer, graphic artist, and lithographer.

Like many other Williamsburg celebrities, Shahn’s parents were Orthodox Jews who fled the poverty and Anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. His father was a leftist political activist whom The Tsar’s forces arrested, imprisoned and sent to Siberia. In 1906, when Shahn was eight years old, his family immigrated to New York where they were reunited with Shahn’s father.

His artistic talent soon manifested itself. In Williamsburg, his fifth-grade teacher first noticed and encouraged his artistic development. The family, however, was very poor and despite his obvious talent, Shahn’s mother made him drop out of school at the end of the eighth-grade to work and help support the family. Shahn got a job as an apprentice in his uncle’s lithography shop, where he continued to develop his artistic ability. By age 19, Shahn had become a professional lithographer, but he was determined to learn even more, so he also started to study at New York University, the College of the City of New York, and the National Academy of Design.

Shahn’s Painting of Sacco and Vanzetti

He toured Europe as a young man and was deeply impressed with European painting, especially Cezanne and Matisse, whom he mimicked in his early work, but Shahn thankfully realized that he was an American artist, soon developing a uniquely American style of art. Later in life he called himself “the most American of all American painters.” His art, though, was highly critical of American life, often depicting American poverty and injustice.
His first fame came with his series of paintings surrounding the extremely controversial execution of the Italian immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts. Shahn, like many people around the world, believed that the two men were framed for their anarchism, and he created twenty-three protests images of the trial. Many of these, including the gouache Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco became famous amongst leftists around the world. One of those leftists was Diego Rivera, the celebrated Mexican muralist, invited him to assist him in creating his famed murals for Rockefeller Center. Under Rivera’s tutelage, Shahn mastered the demanding art of fresco or painting with dry pigments on wet plaster.

Post World War II painting

In the early 1930s, Shahn shared a studio with famed photographer, Walker Evans, from whom he learned the craft of photography. Soon, Shahn began to divide his time between photography and paintings and drawing and for the rest of his life he used photography extensively in creating his paintings.

A Shahn Depression-era photo
Shahn Depression-era photo

It was the Great Depression, though, and times were hard for artists. In 1935, Ben moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a graphic artist for the Special Skills Unit of the Resettlement Administration. Shahn was then hired to work as a federal New Deal photographer for the Farm Security Administration, along with photographic legends such as Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. For the FSA, Shahn traveled extensively throughout the South and mid-west capturing in his photos the desperate plight of depression era homesteads, industrial workers and small town American life, but the genius of his photographs was not recognized until after his death

Liberation 1945 (Courtesy of the Modern Museum of Art)

Shahn also received New Deal commissions to decorate post offices and other New Deal buildings with murals. He and his wife painted his most famous series of murals in the Bronx General Post Office, which subsequently was landmarked. Rivera’s influence is clear in the figures of American workers he created on the post office walls.

Image from Bronx General Post Office

While in Washington, Shahn had access to government photos of the Holocaust and horrific images of destruction, which left him deeply disturbed. As a result, his work became less representational and more universal and allegorical. The media also noticed his talents and Shan received a number of commissions to do major magazine and book covers. During McCarthyism, he was blackballed for a time for being a leftist and C.B.S. refused to use his art due to political pressures.

Tastes changed and his style fell out of favor, but Shahn continued to draw paint and take photographs until his death in 1969. His images grace some of America’s finest museums, but Shahn’s work today has faded into obscurity. Perhaps, with Brooklyn being such a mecca for artists, Shahn’s work will soon enjoy a much-deserved revival.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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