Fasanella had an artistic vision born of a working life. A child of Italian immigrants, he spent his youth delivering ice with his father and enduring the harsh regimen of a Catholic reform school. During the Great Depression, Fasanella worked in garment factories and as a truck driver.
From his mother—a literate, sensitive, and progressive woman, Fasanella acquired a social conscience. Through her influence he became active in antifascist and trade union causes. Fasanella’s political beliefs were radicalized by the Depression. His antifascist zeal led him to volunteer for duty in the International Brigades fighting fascism in Spain, where he served in 1937-1938.
Upon his return to New York City Fasanella became an organizer for various unions, particularly the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, with whom he achieved some major organizing successes.
In 1945, disillusioned by the labor movement and plagued by a painful sensation in his fingers, Fasanella started to draw. He left organizing and began to paint full time. He painted obsessively, capturing the vibrant moods of the city and the tumult of American politics. For a brief time he received some critical notice for his work, and had shows of his work in galleries as well as union halls. Fasanella included in his paintings a profusion of brightly colored details, showed interiors and exteriors simultaneously, and combined past and future. He populated his paintings with likenesses of family and friends.
In 1950 Fasanella married Eva Lazorek, a schoolteacher who supported the couple through over two decades of artistic obscurity and blacklisting by the FBI. In the 1950s Fasanella retreated from political content in his works out of fear of reprisals. With the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s, however, his works became large, sharply focused political essays using images from the popular media. In 1972 Fasanella was featured in "New York" magazine and in an illustrated coffee-table book, "Fasanella’s City". His large-scale, intricate paintings of urban life and American politics were then introduced to art critics and the public.
In the late 1970s Fasanella spent two years in Lawrence, researching the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. The result was a series of eighteen paintings depicting the life of the mill town’s diverse immigrant population and the events of the strike. Paintings from the series are in the Lawrence Visitor Center, The Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and Lewiston Auburn College at the University of Southern Maine.
In the 1980s and 1990s Fasanella largely painted scenes that refined familiar subjects such as urban neighborhoods, baseball, and labor strikes. He also focused his efforts on working with Ron Carver, a labor organizer, to place his works on public view through the Public Domain Project, which was initiated in 1987 to purchase works out of private collections and donate them to institutions or municipalities.
This effort led to placing Fasanella’s paintings in the Museum of American Immigration at Ellis Island National Historical Park, the New York State Historical Association, the American Folk Art Museum (whose painting is installed in the New York City subway), and the National Museum of American Art. In 2001 Fasanella was the subject of a comprehensive book and retrospective exhibition, "Ralph Fasanella’s America", at the New York State Historical Association.
Fasanella died on December 16, 1997.