The Peo­ple’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Jus­tice With Art

Cyn­thia Levin­son, Evan Turk (Illus­tra­tor)

By – May 25, 2021

While Marc Cha­gall has deserved­ly been the sub­ject of more than one excel­lent pic­ture book for chil­dren, oth­er Jew­ish artists have been vir­tu­al­ly ignored. Cyn­thia Levin­son and Evan Turk’s new book for young read­ers chron­i­cles the life of artist and social activist Ben Shahn (18981969), a Jew­ish immi­grant to Amer­i­ca from Lithua­nia. Shahn’s name and work have become syn­ony­mous with the vision of art as a medi­um for social jus­tice. Levin­son care­ful­ly details the most impor­tant events and influ­ences in the artist’s life in an acces­si­ble, yet deeply seri­ous, tone. Turk’s pow­er­ful illus­tra­tions accom­plish the dif­fi­cult task of pay­ing homage to his sub­ject with­out mere­ly imi­tat­ing the artist’s unique style. Read­ers in search of a long-await­ed trib­ute to this out­stand­ing Jew­ish fig­ure in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, or sim­ply inter­est­ed in broad­en­ing children’s knowl­edge of Jew­ish visu­al artists, will not be dis­ap­point­ed by this out­stand­ing book.

From ear­ly child­hood, Ben Shahn’s urgent desire to draw was inter­twined with his anger at unfair­ness. His ear­li­est mem­o­ries were of draw­ing, and, as paper was a lux­u­ry in the shtetl,” he even drew in the mar­gins of books. Levin­son has cho­sen nei­ther to explain nor ital­i­cize Yid­dish words in the text, instead includ­ing a short glos­sary at the begin­ning of the book, giv­ing the nar­ra­tive a more authen­tic and unin­ter­rupt­ed qual­i­ty. Vio­lence against Jews and oppo­nents of the Czar infu­ri­at­ed the young artist, pro­mot­ing the devel­op­ment of a strong social and polit­i­cal con­scious­ness. Emi­gra­tion to Amer­i­ca even­tu­al­ly meant free­dom for the fam­i­ly but also a wrench­ing sep­a­ra­tion from his beloved grand­fa­ther, an expe­ri­ence visu­al­ized as the old man and the young boys’ hands gripped togeth­er one last time.

Ben’s new life in Amer­i­ca is a series of con­tra­dic­tions: Amer­i­ca bewil­dered the new immi­grant.” Turk’s pic­tures cap­ture the whole range of this expe­ri­ence: crowd­ed ten­e­ments, rapid tran­sit, free pub­lic edu­ca­tion, and eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty. Ben learns that anti­semitism was not exclu­sive to the Russ­ian Empire, but he also finds men­tors who encour­age him to pur­sue his dream of becom­ing a pro­fes­sion­al artist. Levin­son care­ful­ly nar­rates his wind­ing path for­ward, includ­ing train­ing in lith­o­g­ra­phy and con­flicts with instruc­tors who demand ide­al­ized imagery that Ben would not pro­duce in his work. The author also records Ben’s doubts about his voca­tion instead of offer­ing the more uplift­ing mes­sage of a genius invul­ner­a­ble to criticism.

When the mur­der tri­al of Ital­ian immi­grants Sac­co and Vanzetti grips the nation, Shahn’s artis­tic com­mit­ment crys­tal­lizes in a series of pic­tures decry­ing the prej­u­dice that taint­ed their tri­al. (In the inter­ests of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, the author states that the accused were poor immi­grants and they opposed democ­ra­cy,” when they were actu­al­ly anar­chists). Shahn’s reward­ing expe­ri­ence work­ing with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal pro­grams employ­ing artists enlight­ens read­ers about a time in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, when offer­ing the dig­ni­ty of a paid job extend­ed to painters, pho­tog­ra­phers, and jour­nal­ists. Yet, when the polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment lat­er changes, the FBI tar­gets Shahn for alleged sub­ver­sive activ­i­ties. He remains unbowed when con­front­ed by gov­ern­ment agents who are depict­ed as gri­mac­ing mon­sters, their black suits and shiny badges boast­ing an author­i­ty that Shahn qui­et­ly rejects. He con­tin­ues to speak out and to cre­ate works of art sup­port­ing civ­il rights, labor, and anti­war move­ments, earn­ing the unof­fi­cial title of the people’s painter.”

Evan Turk’s pic­tures are tru­ly out­stand­ing — sub­tle and dra­mat­ic at the same time. Read­ers unfa­mil­iar with Shahn’s work will find them a point of entry, not a sub­sti­tute for encoun­ters with his paint­ings, murals, and posters. Those already acquaint­ed with Shahn’s art, includ­ing adults shar­ing this book with chil­dren, will be amazed at Turk’s abil­i­ty to syn­the­size two styles, Shahn’s and his own, in per­fect bal­ance. This pic­ture book biog­ra­phy offers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to intro­duce a Jew­ish visu­al artist whose fideli­ty to prin­ci­ples of art and social jus­tice gave the world works of great beau­ty and endur­ing relevance.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes infor­ma­tive notes by the author and illus­tra­tor, a time­line, and a detailed list of sources.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

Cyn­thia Levin­son and Evan Turk’s stun­ning pic­ture book biog­ra­phy of Ben Shahn (18981969) hon­ors his life as an artist and activist. The book begins with Ben as a child in Lithua­nia exper­i­ment­ing with art and the design of Hebrew let­ters; we see the first stir­rings of his com­mit­ment to social jus­tice as he protests his father’s exile to Siberia for demand­ing work­ers’ rights. We fol­low Shahn through the bewil­der­ing dif­fi­cul­ties of his family’s immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States and his devel­op­ment as an artist por­tray­ing sto­ries about out­siders: work­ing peo­ple, pris­on­ers, and Jews who had been mis­treat­ed.” Shahn’s art chron­i­cled Amer­i­cans’ strug­gles dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, and in lat­er years Shahn’s work told the sto­ries of peo­ple protest­ing for jus­tice and advo­cat­ing for peace. The book con­cludes with Shahn teach­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of young artists; the Hebrew words l’dor v’dor (from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion) float on the page, an inspir­ing mes­sage for young read­ers and future artists/​activists. Turk’s bold, crisply edged art­work chan­nels Shahn’s dis­tinc­tive style while per­fect­ly com­ple­ment­ing Levinson’s well-craft­ed and deeply researched text.