Ben Shahn in his studio, 1965
Gift of Kenneth Tyler 2002
Photographer: Unknown Photographer

Ben Shahn was born in Lithuania in 1898. Following the persecution of his father for anti-tsarist activities, the family immigrated to America in 1904. After finishing school, Shahn attended night classes at the National Academy of Design while apprenticed to a commercial lithographer’s studio. In time he managed to attend classes at both the Art Students League and New York University, and travelled to Europe in 1925 and again in 1927. The influence of his family’s strong social conscience permeated all aspects of Shahn’s life and art. In the early 1930s his socialist paintings came to the attention of Diego Rivera, who was in New York painting his Rockefeller Centre murals. Shahn was invited to be his assistant. After learning the techniques of mural painting from Rivera, the medium became a prominent feature of Shahn’s oeuvre.

Shahn also worked with photography, and the National Gallery holds a large collection of his work in this area. The techniques he learnt as an apprentice lithographer were utilised during World War II when he worked on a commission for the American Office of War Information to design posters, an example of which, This is Nazi brutality, is in the National Gallery’s collection. Shahn worked at Gemini GEL in 1966 to create the lithograph Levana. A reference to the Roman goddess of newborn babies, the work is a simple black line evocation of the tender bond that exists between mother and child; a further example of Shahn’s concern with the human condition.
Emilie Owens

Further reading


Born in Kovno, Lithuania

Apprenticeship at Hessenberg’s Lithography Shop, New York

Attends New York University and City College of New York, New York

Extensive travels through Africa, Spain, Italy, Austria, Holland and France, after which he settles in Paris

Returns to United States for a year before returning to Paris, France

First solo exhibition, Paintings and drawings of Ben Shahn, The Downtown Gallery, New York

Included in exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, New York; included in exhibition, Whitney biennale, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Employed by Resettlement Administration to document poverty in South and Midwest, United States of America

Designs posters for the Office of War Information, Washington, DC

Included in exhibition: Watercolor-USA, organised by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Solo exhibition, Ben Shahn, atMuseum of Modern Art, New York

Teaches at University of Colorado, Boulder

Teaches at Brooklyn Museum School, New York and Black Mountain College, ConnecticutIncluded in exhibitions Biennial of São-Paulo, Brazil

Included in exhibitions: Annual exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois; Venice biennale, Italy

Receives Joseph E. Temple Award, from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine ArtsTeaches at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts Solo exhibition, The art of Ben Shahn, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge Designs set for the ballet, New York export- opus jazz

Publishes writings The shape of content (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957)

Included in exhibition, Annual exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

Included in exhibition, Posters against Nazism, Galleria dell’obelisco, Rome; travelling solo exhibition, The works of Ben Shahn, organised by the International Council of Museum of Modern Art, New York

Travelling solo exhibition, Ben Shahn graphics, organised by the International Council of Museum of Modern Art, New York

Completes edition of the lithograph Lavina, at Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles

Solo exhibition, The collected prints of Ben Shahn, at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania

Solo exhibition, Ben Shahn: a retrospective exhibition, organised by New Jersey State Museum, Trenton
Ben Shahn died in New York, New York

Kate Buckingham, 2006
This chronology provides an overview of selected biographical information, major solo and group exhibitions held within the artist's own lifetime. It draws from the excellent biographical information published in K. Prescott, Prints and posters of Ben Shahn (New York: Dover Publications, 1982)

Further information will be added to this site as the National Gallery proceeds with its research and documentation.

Last updated October 2015