Ben Shahn, American (b. Lithuania), 1898 - 1969
Medium: Tempera on board
Painting: 18 1/8 x 80 3/8 in. (46 x 204.2 cm)
Frame: 23 1/8 x 85 1/2 in. (58.7 x 217.2 cm)
Credit Line: Eugenia Buxton Whitnel Funds
Object Number: 73.16
Copyright: © Estate of Ben Shahn / VAGA , New York, NY
Immigrating to New York with his family in 1906, Ben Shahn apprenticed with a lithographer from 1913 to 1917, and later studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League. Traveling twice to Europe between 1924 and 1929, Shahn studied the old masters as well as paintings by Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Klee. When he determined, however, that he wanted to tell stories through his paintings, Shahn developed a simplified representational style. He is known best for his paintings of the trial and execution of the working class-anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, in which Shahn excoriated the New England aristocrats who perpetrated what he saw as a grave social injustice. During the 1930s and 1940s, he shot photographs for the Farm Services Administration and painted for the Public Works of Art Project. After World War II, he began painting allegorical and biblical imagery based on a complex personal iconography.
Tree of Life is the final study for a mosaic mural (today in the collection of the New Jersey State Museum) commissioned for the passenger ship SS Shalom, a transatlantic passenger ship owned by American Israeli Shipping Company. A paean to religious and aesthetic tolerance, the mural is also a rumination on the need to link science with philosophy. Bordering the bottom and top are the words of Maximus of Tyre, a second-century Greek philosopher who advocated freedom of religion and respect for visual imagery that facilitated the practice of religion. In the center is a figure who can be interpreted either as three individuals or as three facets of a unified being. A philosopher reads the Aramaic text in front of him: “Where the book is, the sword is not.” To the left, he is framed by a botanist who holds a thorny plant with blood red roots resembling a human heart. To the right, a physicist clasps a molecular model.1 The sides of the image are balanced through more molecular models and stellar constellations that tie Tree of Life to its companion mosaic, Atomic Table. After World War II Shahn worried about the threat of nuclear technology; here he celebrates the unification of science with the spiritual.
1. Frances K. Pohl, Ben Shahn (San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1993), p. 29.