About Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn, 1898–1969, painter, lithographer, photographer, activist, lecturer, teacher.

Born in Lithuania, Ben Shahn immigrated with his parents and siblings to the United States in 1906. After studying in America and Europe, he rejected modern European art in favor of social realism, bursting onto the American art scene with his series of paintings, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1931–32. They remain perhaps his most iconic work. Shahn made over 6,000 photographs for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression. He designed and executed his own murals, experimented extensively with lithographs and silk-screens, taught, and lectured widely. He often treated themes of social progress and social protest, but also had a special interest in lettering. He had had an intense relationship, he said, with typography, during his apprenticeship years. Both Roman and Hebrew lettering figure in his work.

By the mid fifties, Shahn was at the height of his career and Ismar David, a relative new comer. Shahn had lived, since 1938, in the Jersey Homesteads (now called Roosevelt), a few miles from Princeton University, which exhibited his work in the 1940s and ’50s and eventually awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1962. On October 13, 1954, Gillette Griffin, Director of the Graphic Arts Division of the Princeton University Library approached Ishmar [sic] David with a proposal that seems to have involved quite a bit of foot-dragging:

Dear Mr. David:

I have been meaning to write for several months now, ever since Ben Shan [sic] suggested that perhaps you and he could combine efforts on a joint exhibition of your calligraphy for the Graphic Arts Division here at Princeton. I would like to suggest that the exhibition might be principally of Hebrew calligraphy, but if you have any other examples of calligraphy that you think interesting, it might be nice to include them too. May be you and Mr. Shan could work out what you would like to show together, and I will get in touch with him. If possible, I would like to put the exhibition up sometime in November.

David responded the next day, that he had written to Shahn and was interested in the exhibition, but that the time to plan such a project was unfortunately short. Shahn responded three weeks later.

Dear Mr. David

I so regret not having answered sooner and now it’s probably too late. But only too late for the pleasure of going through some of your wonderful graphics with you. As far as Mr. Griffin is concerned he’s a highly perceptive and sensitive person and will do a bang up job on any exhibit that he would undertake.

This has been a fantastic month and now I have to leave for a 2 week mid-west lecture tour. Please let me know what progress you’ve made with Mr. Griffin. And again accept my apologies for not answering sooner.

Regards to Mrs. David and Dr. Leslie
Yrs Sincerely
Ben Shahn
Roosevelt, N. J.
Nov 8 1954

Letter from Ben Shahn
Letter from Ben Shahn to Ismar David, November 8, 1954. Ismar David papers, box 5, folder 118, Cary Graphic Arts Collection, RIT.
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