Absorbed by social and political concerns, Ben Shahn (1898-1969), the twentieth century New York City-based artist, often addressed important events through his art. He was inspired by the celebrated case in which two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested, tried, and unjustly convicted of a 1920 murder in Massachusetts. The professed anarchists were executed in 1927 despite worldwide protest. Deeply affected by the case, Shahn completed a series of twenty-three small gouache paintings which he called The passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. The 1932 exhibition of the Passion series caused a sensation in New York, and established Shahn’s reputation as a leading Social Realist.
The series, which included Three Witnesses, illustrated the major characters, settings, and events of the dramatic story. The paintings are executed in a simple, straightforward style, with broad washes of color and energetic lines. The idea for a series of simplified images narrating a ‘Passion’ story may be related to Italian fresco paintings depicting the life of Christ. Shahn notes, “I set about revealing the acts and persons involved with as rigorous a simplicity as I could command. I was not unmindful of Giotte.”
Text Written by Mary Birmingham (Emeritus) (Former Cataloguer at MAM)
This work is not on view.