Ben Shahn was born in Lithuania and emigrated with his family to America in 1906. He was apprenticed to a New York lithographer before enrolling at New York University and completing his studies at the City College of New York. Shahn studied two years at the National Academy of Design then traveled to Europe and North Africa. Shahn’s socially conscious art was influenced by photographer Walker Evans. One of Shahn’s most famous works consisted of twenty-three gouaches and two mural panels based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case. His style in this series of elongated bodies and caricatured faces was consistent throughout his work. Shahn was Diego Rivera’s assistant on the artist’s murals for the RCA building in Rockefeller Center. Shahn’s own themes covered such social issues as anti-semitism, inequality and unfair labor conditions. Both his photographer and art were dedicated to social causes.
Shahn executed a series of sixteen images that document the case of Tom Mooney, a militant labor leader convicted and imprisoned for twenty-three years on testimony by admitted perjurers. Jimmy Walker and Frank P. Walsh portrays Mooney’s representatives in an unsuccessful pardon plea before Governor Rolph of California in 1931. The plain background and caricature-like drawing focus attention on the subjects, their character clearly expressed in the enlarged heads. Walker, the popular mayor of New York City, is shown as a dapper, outgoing personality. In contrast, his partner, the sober-faced attorney Walsh, stands solidly planted, his entire being one of serious determination.
Howard Greenfield. Ben Shahn: An Artist’s Life, New York: Random House Inc., 1998. ISBN-13: 978-0679783121