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Identifier: GA 19

Ben Shahn Estate Collection


  • Majority of material found in 1931-1991

Scope and Content Note

The collection includes 415 drawings, posters, prints, proof sheets, and sheets of lettering that touch many of the techniques and themes of Ben Shahn's artistic output. The largest concentration of work is calligraphy and lettering, primarily drafts of his commercial work, Chinese calligraphy and Hebrew lettering, as well as philosophic and religious quotations. Broadsides, Advertising and Political posters also demonstrate a significant lettering component. A considerable part of the collection includes prints, primarily commercial prints, posters and reproductive prints, with a modest number of lithographs. In this category is a series of prints and blue line prints he made as illustration of the French Dreyfus trial. Many posters were reproductive prints for a Ben Shahn retrospective exhibition held in Japan in 1991. A wide range of drawings is represented, including architectural drawings, designs, drafts, plans and sketches in a variety of media. These include the drawings for his work at Temple Beth Zion and sketches for his painting Liberation, as well as drawings where he used the "pounce" technique to transfer a design from paper to another surface. Photographs of Ben Shahn and of the printing of some of his books are included, as well as negatives and photographic prints of posters or drawings. Proof sheets and drafts of Ben Shahn's Alphabet of Creation, and signature sheets for an unpublished Hallelujah are included, as well as other mock-ups, stencil cut-outs, and other materials.

Few of the works are dated and most are not identified with titles. An effort was made to identify some of these works, using sources listed in References below. Many elements recur in different works of art created at different times, so positive identification was not always possible. Cross-references indicate many of these related images and designs.

Other material related to Ben Shahn is held in Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University, and can be found in the library catalog.


"The Dreyfus Affair: The Ben Shahn Prints" with Essays, EBTH: Everything but the House. Dreyfus Affair: Ben Shahn Prints. Accessed 10/20/2017.

Ish-Kishor, Sulamith. A Boy of Old Prague. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.

Newark Public Library, Special Collections Division. Shahn Estate Collection. Accessed 10/20/2017.

Prescott, Kenneth W. The Complete Graphic Works of Ben Shahn. New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company, 1973.

Shahn, Ben. The Dreyfus Affair. Cincinnati: Crossroads Books, 1984.

Shahn, Ben. Ecclesiastes, or, the Preacher. New York: Grossman and Trianon, 1971.

Shahn, Ben. Haggadah for Passover. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1965.

Shahn, Ben. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Ben Shahn. Accessed 10/20/2017.

Shahn, Ben. Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow Portfolio. New York: Philip van Doren Stern, 1931.

Shahn, Ben. Love and Joy about Letters. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1963.

Shahn, Ben. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Ben Shahn. Accessed 10/20/2017.

Soby, James Thrall. Ben Shahn: His Graphic Art. New York: G. Braziller, 1963.

Soby, James Thrall. Ben Shahn Paintings. New York: G. Braziller, [1963].


7.5 Cubic Feet (Consisting of four medium boxes (19.25 x 14.5 x 3.5"), two large boxes (31.5 x 23.5 x 3"), 14 map folders (42 x 32 x 2" in total) and ten rolled works (41.5 x 24.5 x 2" in total).)

Language of Materials



This collection of Ben Shahn's work includes drawings, lettering, posters, prints, proof sheets and other materials. The largest concentrations are in lettering and prints. Other materials, including drawings, photographs of Ben Shahn, cut-outs, drafts and mock-ups, are also included.

Biographical Sketch

Ben Shahn, a painter, graphic artist, photographer and educator, lived from 1898 to 1969. His work is eclectic, including painting, mosaics, printmaking and photography. While he also produced commercial work, political posters and lettering, his primary concerns were social justice, religion and philosophy.

Lithuanian by birth, from the city of Kaunas, he arrived in the United States at the age of 8 years. His earliest education centered on study of the Bible. As a teenager, he worked for a lithographer while attending high school. Here, he learned both lithography and lettering, which followed him throughout his career as an artist. He studied at New York University, the National Academy of Design, the Art Students League in New York and City College in New York, graduating in 1924. He continued his artistic education in Europe in 1924, and again for two years from 1927. He was closely tied to the radical artist movement of the time and belonged to the left-leaning Artist's Union.

In the early 1930s, he assisted Diego Rivera in painting murals at the New York RCA Building in Rockefeller Center and later collaborated with painter Lou Block on a never-painted design for the Penitentiary on Riker's Island in New York. Like many other artists during the Depression Era, Shahn also worked for the Public Works of Art program and other government agencies. For the Farm Security Administration, he photographed farmers and the rural and urban poor throughout the South and the Midwest. His other government-funded projects in the later 1930s include a mural representing the immigrant experience for the town of Roosevelt, New Jersey, and murals for the Bronx Central Annex Post Office in New York. During World War II, he created posters for the Office of War Information.

His later work included paintings, mosaic murals and stained glass windows, including designs for mosaic and stone tablets and stained glass windows at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, NY. He also wrote and illustrated books, including several he wrote himself. Among his own works were an illustrated Haggadah, Ecclesiastes and Alphabet of Creation. He also created prints and posters using illustrated or decorated lettering in both Hebrew and English. His commercial work included advertising, posters, and book, magazine and record covers for such companies as CBS, Time and Harper's magazines. He also taught throughout the United States, lecturing at Black Mountain Collage, Harvard University, Princeton University and the University of Colorado.

His art was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tate in London, Fogg Art Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art and at galleries, such as Downtown Gallery in New York. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, as well as chosen to represent the United States at the 1954 Venice Bienniale. He received an honorary doctorate from Harvard and Princeton Universities.

He was married to artist Bernarda Bryson and the two often collaborated on their work. Moving to Roosevelt, New Jersey in 1939, they formed the nucleus of an artist's community that settled there.

Arrangement Note

In this finding aid, the collection has been arranged in seven series, representing the different types of works represented here: Broadsides, Advertising and Political Posters, Calligraphy, Drawings, Photographs, Posters (Reproductive Prints), Prints and Other Material. Note that there is considerable overlap in Shahn's work between these categories, given the lettering and pictorial components that are combined in much of his work. Because of the varied types and sizes of the material, items are housed physically according to size and fragility. Below are the series and the locations where they may be found. Please note special conditions for oversized and fragile works.

Broadsides, Advertising and Political Posters (Boxes 3 and 4, and an oversized Drawer. See note below on oversized works)

Calligraphy and Lettering (Boxes 1, 3, and 4, and an oversized Drawer. See note below on oversized works)

Drawings (Boxes 1 - 4, and an oversized Drawer. Some works not available. See note below on oversized and fragile works)

Photographs, Negatives and Transparencies (Boxes 1, 3, 4 and an oversized Drawer. See note below on oversized works)

Posters (Reproductive Prints) (Box 5)

Prints (Boxes 1 – 3, and 5)

Other Material (Boxes 2, 3, 3a, 5 and an oversized Drawer. See note below on oversized works)

NOTE: Printed and digital images are available for oversized works. Because of the size of these works and the potential for damage in handling, we ask that researchers use the printed and digital versions where possible. Many oversized items cannot be shown to scholars because of their fragile state. Printed and digital images are also available for these items, subject to copyright restrictions. Printed images are located in each series in the folder titled Printed Images of Digitized (Lettering, Drawings, Photographs, Other Material, etc.). Digital images are housed on the local drive in Rutgers University Special Collections and University Archives. Digital and print images are identified by an associated Rutgers "Ben Shahn" number.

Processing Note

The Ben Shahn Estate Collection was donated to the library by Jonathan and Jean Shahn.

There were a number of conservation issues to be addressed in processing this collection. Many prints, drawings and mark-ups are on heavily foxed paper, with substantial mold smell. Most have been vacuumed and all were placed in microchamber folders, many with microchamber interleaving to mitigate residual mold. Another conservation issue was that many works were stored tightly rolled. Where possible, these have been flattened. Many torn items have been repaired with Japanese paper and methyl cellulose. Some fragile works have been encapsulated in polyester or supported with corrugated board. Architectural drawings and other prints that were made with an acidic process have been placed in neutral housing, either polyester or microchamber Silversafe®. When multiple copies of a print were available, three copies were retained.

Each piece of original artwork, which includes cut-outs, drawings, lettering, paste-ups, has been given an individual Rutgers Ben Shahn identification number. Numbers are written in pencil on the upper right hand corner of the verso, or the nearest clear surface that would not interfere with the artwork or the integrity of the paper. Oversized prints also have an identifying Ben Shahn number. The identifiers indicate location, folder and item. Examples and explanations of these identifying numbers follows:

Ben Shahn 4-3a

This work is in Box 4, Folder 3, and is the first item in that folder.

Ben Shahn D1-6638

This work is an oversized work located in a Drawer, Folder 1, and is the item identified as 6638.

Ben Shahn NA 6642-6643

This work is fragile and not available for viewing. The two number indentifier, 6642-6643, indicates that the work was too large to be photographed in one image. Thus, there is one work of art, with two digital and two print images that encompass two different parts of the work.

Additional works were added to the collection after processing was complete. This largely extended the Broadsides, Advertising and Political Posters holdings, as well as those of Posters and Prints. This accrual was integrated into the existing order of the Finding Aid.

Guide to the Ben Shahn Estate Collection
Edited Full Draft
Elizabeth M. Phillips, Michael Joseph
March 2018
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English.
Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University received an operating support grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the Department of State.

Revision Statements

  • March 2009: Items listed as n.d. changed to undated, per DACS
  • September 2009: revised coding to add encoding analogs to some elements per the EAD report card