Ben Shahn’s interest and involvement in politics was longstanding and greatly influenced his artistic career. He was born in Lithuania in 1898 into a family of Jewish craftsmen. His father’s anti-czarist activities forced the family to immigrate to the United States in 1906. Shahn grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. He became an apprentice in a Manhattan lithographic firm, finishing high school at night and later taking classes at New York University, City College of New York, and the National Academy of Design. Shahn saw his art as a means to combat injustice and raise social awareness. Throughout his career Shahn’s style retained the linear bias of a draughtsman, which proved to be effective in his satirical depictions of social types. He had his first solo exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in 1930, and his series of paintings of the trial and execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti established his reputation and led to further explorations of trials with political implications.
Diego Rivera, the Mexican painter, admired Shahn’s work and invited him to assist with murals Rivera was painting for Rockefeller Center’s RCA Building. (When a portrait of Lenin was discovered among the figures Rivera had depicted, the murals were removed.) Responding strongly to the public nature of this art form, Shahn painted murals for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), notably those in the Bronx Central Annex Post Office and the Federal Security Building in Washington, D.C.
A painter and photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) between 1935 and 1938, and later known for his illustrations and prints, Shahn was skilled in many mediums. He was also active politically, serving as a city councilman in Roosevelt, New Jersey, between 1945 and 1948. He died in New York in 1969.