Born in Kovno, Lithuania to an orthodox Jewish family, Ben Shahn became one of America's leading Social-Realist painters. He settled with his family in Brooklyn, New York, and had an apprenticeship with a lithographer while taking evening classes in drawing. In 1929, he shared a studio with photographer Walker Evans and in 1930 at the Downtown Gallery had his first one-man exhibition.
Until 1930, Shahn did lithography work and attended New York University, City College, and the National Academy of Design. He traveled to Europe and North Africa and became increasingly committed to social justice themes going from interest in social ills at large to the plight of individuals.
Between 1930 and 1933, he painted his well-known Sacco and Vanzetti and Tom Mooney series, and was a mural assistant to Diego Rivera at Rockefeller Center. He also painted murals for the WPA, worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, and designed World War II posters for the government. He did magazine illustrations including for "Time" and "Seventeen." He executed many stain glass windows, and in 1956, was Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard University.
After World War II, he renewed his interest in his Jewish heritage and developed a style influenced by Surrealism with Hebraic subjects. In 1998, the Jewish Museum in New York City organized a traveling exhibition of his works that he created between 1936 and 1965. These works with allegorical, mythological and Biblical themes were more personal than his earlier pieces of social realism, and were his reaction to the birth of the state of Israel and nuclear proliferation.