Born in Kaunus, Lithuania, Ben Shahn emigrated with his family to the United States in 1906. From the age of fifteen, Shahn was apprenticed to a New York lithographer. In 1919 he enrolled at New York University, completing his studies at the City College of New York in 1924. After two years studying at the National Academy of Design, Shahn traveled in Europe and North Africa. Returning to America, he had his first one-man show in 1929.
Shahns mature style and his emphasis on specific social themes date from the 1930s. His art was influenced by photographer Walker Evans, and in 1931 Shahn painted twenty-three gouaches and two mural panels based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Elongated bodies and slight caricature of faces is a style that remains consistent throughout his work. Shahn later became Diego Rivera's assistant on the murals for the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, New York City. His themes reflected a variety of topical problems from anti-semitism to unfair labor conditions. He framed them into a continuous wall plane that is subdivided by architectural devices. During the 1940's, Shahn executed graphics for the Office of War Information and, later, for the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
After Shahns retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1947, he moved from what he called "social realism" to a "personal realism." He also increasingly turned to tempera painting and graphics. Yet his iconography was never "personal" or autobiographical, rather, he reached a universal expression through the device of symbolism and allegory, the stylized line, and the colorful palette, which are hallmarks of his style. Whether his subject was music or a theme after the Spanish artist Fransisco Goya, it is said that he could evoke worlds with a single pen stroke or color overlay. Shahn's work is represented in many prestigious public and private collections including the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Museum of Modern Art, among others.