Lithuanian-born US painter. The most distinguished of the US Social Realists, his art drew attention to social and political issues that were often particularly controversial. The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931–32; Whitney Museum of American Art), for example, is based on the notorious Sacco-Vanzetti case, in which two Italian anarchists living in the USA were convicted and ultimately executed for murder. Shahn also worked for the Federal Art Project, painting murals with Mexican artist Diego Rivera (never completed) for the Rockefeller Center, New York, and murals for the Federal Security Building, Washington, 1940–42.
Shahn was born in Kaunas, Lithuania. The family moved to the USA in 1906, and settled in Brooklyn. He was apprenticed to a lithographer in 1913 and continued to support himself as a graphic artist until 1930. Shahn attended New York University, the City College of New York, and the National Academy of Design. In the late 1920s he travelled in Europe and North Africa. In Paris he discovered the works of Georges Rouault, whose powerful graphic style strongly influenced his development. Because Shahn's training was in graphic design, his style is often characterized by thin, flat colours, and a strong, precise, incisive line. His background as a commercial artist, combined with his commitment to social issues, often resulted in work laden with personal messages, yet depicted in a skilfully concise manner, as in Handball (1939; Museum of Modern Art, New York).
From 1935 to 1938 Shahn, with many other well known artists and photographers, photographed the rural poor in Ohio and across the Midwest for the Farm Security Administration. Later he developed paintings from some of these photographs. Throughout his career photography was a common source of inspiration, and he often carried out many photographic studies during the creation of works, such as The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, a work comprising two large panels and 23 small paintings.
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