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Ben Shahn

SHAHN, BEN (1898–1969), U.S. painter and printmaker. Born in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, he was taken to the United States at the age of eight. He studied lithography and for many years supported himself and his family by means of commercial lithography. A liberal in outlook, Shahn attracted attention through his gouache paintings on the Sacco-Vanzetti case and the case of labor leader Tom Mooney. The Mexican artist Diego Rivera, also a liberal, hired Shahn as his assistant in painting the fresco Man at the Crossroads, for the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, New York. This controversial fresco was finally removed to Mexico City. During the Depression Shahn was commissioned by the government to paint several murals for public buildings. He helped form the Artists' Union and the American Artists' Congress. During World War II, Shahn designed posters for the Office of War Information. He taught at several universities and museum art schools, had many one-man shows, and was represented at international shows such as the biennial exhibitions at Venice and São Paulo. In the winter of 1956–57 he gave a series of lectures at Harvard University, published under the title The Shape of Content (1957). Shahn often dealt with Jewish subject matter. He made drawings for the production of a play, The World of Sholom Aleichem (1953), and designed windows for Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York (1965). As a calligrapher, he repeatedly made use of the Hebrew alphabet, especially in the books Alphabet of Creation (1954) and Love and Joy about Letters (1963; for which he also wrote texts), and in a series of de luxe editions of the Haggadah (1965). Drawings of the Haggadah had been executed about 1930 and all but one of these were bought for the Jewish Museum, New York, and are now one of its most prized possessions. The Oriental touch in some of these drawings is due to Shahn's acquaintance with the Jews of *Djerba, where he spent almost a year. When he was seventy, several retrospective exhibitions of his works were held. Shahn raised the aesthetic level of graphic art in the United States. As a draftsman, he was often a commentator on the social scene, always outraged at injustice, but also amused by humanity's foibles and weakness.


S. Rodman, Portrait of the Artist as an American (1951); J.T. Soby, Ben Shahn, 2 vols. (Eng., 1963).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.