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Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

Essay by Dr. Lara Kuykendall

Ben Shahn: activist and artist

Ben Shahn said, “I hate injustice. I guess that’s about the only thing I really do hate.” Born in Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1898, Shahn grew up in a family of leftist political activists. When Shahn was only four years old, his socialist father was exiled to Siberia because the Russian government suspected he was a revolutionary. Shahn remembered launching his own sort of protest as a child when he would shout “Down with the Czar!” at anyone wearing a uniform. As he recalled, “the air [in Russia] was filled with this whole revolutionary idea.” [1]
Ben Shahn
In 1906, the whole family immigrated to New York and, like many fellow Eastern European Jews, settled in Brooklyn. As an adult, Shahn called himself “the most American of all American painters” because he “came to America and its culture and was sort of swallowing it by the cupful.”[2] Apart from his love of baseball and chewing gum, Shahn’s Americanism lies in his Social Realist style. In that vein, he made paintings, prints, photographs, and drawings that address problems like racism, poverty, and oppression. His works are often critical of American life, but by exposing social problems, Shahn hoped to inspire reform.

The Sacco and Vanzetti case

Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco (right) in 1923
One of Shahn’s most enduring subjects was prompted by the arrest, trial, and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco, a shoemaker, and Vanzetti, a fish seller, were accused of murdering two men during an armed robbery at a factory in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. After seven years of legal battles, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed just after midnight on August 23, 1927. Sacco and Vanzetti’s plight was a cause célèbre—a sensational case that captured the attention of millions of people around the world, many of whom protested against the convictions.
Ben Shahn, Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, 1931-32, gouache on paper on board, 10 7/8 x 14 5/8 inches / 27.6 x 37.1 cm (The Museum of Modern Art)
The case against Sacco and Vanzetti was troubled from the start by ethnic bigotry and political intolerance. Both men were Italian immigrants, drawn to the United States by the promise of freedom and democracy. But upon arrival, poverty and poor working conditions propelled them toward the radical communist and anarchist thinking of Luigi Galleani. The Galleanisti, as his followers were called, believed that capitalism was an evil economic system that disadvantaged workers to the point of desperation and that violence would be the most effective revolutionary strategy. Sacco and Vanzetti’s association with such a militant political group, along with their participation in labor strikes and evasion of the World War I military draft in 1917, placed them on the federal government’s watch list of dangerous subversives.
The trail of evidence that led police to arrest Sacco and Vanzetti for the Braintree murders was extraordinarily weak. Their fingerprints did not match those collected at the crime scene and the stolen money (over $15,000) was never found. Though both men owned guns, ballistic analysis never connected the bullets found at the crime scene with Sacco and Vanzetti’s weapons. Eyewitnesses to the murders did not credibly identify either suspect; in some cases, witnesses were coerced into giving false testimony. The prosecutor built on a general perception that Italians—especially Italian anarchists—were ruthless, murderous criminals bent on overthrowing the United States government. He argued that Sacco and Vanzetti appeared suspicious when arrested, that they lied during questioning, and the jury agreed and convicted them for the murders. Two men imprisoned for other offenses, Joe Morelli and Celestino Madeiros, later confessed to the Braintree crimes, but Sacco and Vanzetti’s prosecutors never followed up on their claims.

Outrage and irony in The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

Shahn followed Sacco and Vanzetti’s case closely and believed, like many people around the world, that the two men were not given a fair trial. Shahn participated in protests in support of their release in the 1920s and made twenty-three images about the Sacco and Vanzetti affair in 1931 and 1932. Many of these, including the gouache Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco (1931-32) were based on photographs that appeared in newspapers. He returned to the Sacco and Vanzetti case in drawings and prints in the 1950s and used The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti as part of the composition for a large mosaic at Syracuse University in 1967.
Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931-32, tempera and gouache on canvas mounted on composition board, 84 × 48 inches (Whitney Museum of American Art)
In Shahn’s early and iconic tempera-on-canvas painting, Sacco and Vanzetti lie in coffins in the foreground in front of a colonnaded neoclassical courthouse (image left). On the porch behind them hangs a portrait of the trial judge, Webster Thayer. Towering over Sacco and Vanzetti are the members of the committee that reviewed their convictions: Samuel Stratton, the president of MIT; Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president; and Robert Grant, a retired judge. These four men represent the wealthy, intellectual Massachusetts establishment, which was openly hostile to the radical ideals that Sacco and Vanzetti embodied.
Shahn used irony in this painting as a way of indicting Thayer, Stratton, Lowell, and Grant for the roles they played in Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution. In the background, Thayer raises his right hand as if he is taking an oath to uphold justice, but he faces a lamppost that resembles the bundle of sticks known as a fasces (image below). Once known as a symbol of judicial power, the fasces became a symbol for Italian fascism and oppression in the 1920s. Indeed, Thayer’s bias against immigrants and political radicals was widely known. He presided over Sacco and Vanzetti’s initial conviction and denied all motions for retrial. In response to public outcry, Lowell and his two cohorts were tasked with reviewing the proceedings and summarily upheld Sacco and Vanzetti’s convictions and death sentences after only ten days of deliberation.
Webster Thayer (detail), Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931-32, tempera and gouache on canvas mounted on composition board, 84 × 48 inches (Whitney Museum of American Art)
Shahn explained in a 1944 interview, “Ever since I could remember I’d wished that I’d been lucky enough to be alive at a great time—when something big was going on, like the Crucifixion. And suddenly realized I was! Here I was living through another crucifixion. Here was something to paint!” [3] The term “passion” in his title connects Sacco and Vanzetti’s deaths with Jesus’s martyrdom (the "Passion of Christ" refers to the period at the end of his life leading to the crucifixion). Shahn also painted in tempera, a matte medium that was used by Italian Renaissance artists for Christian panel paintings, but rarely by modernists in the twentieth century. His composition harkens back to images of the Lamentation of Christ, but his mourning scene lacks the emotional force that typically accompanies Jesus’ death and burial. The three men in the foreground, Stratton, Lowell, and Grant, wear expressions that communicate placid resolve rather than sorrow. They seem uncomfortable and awkwardly crowded together in Shahn’s painting as they half-heartedly offer white lilies, symbols of goodness and purity, to the deceased. Here Shahn forces these men to bear witness to the injustice that they refused to prevent.
That Shahn’s The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti is eerily devoid of any kind of genuine, heartfelt anguish or grief amplifies the tragedy of the men’s deaths.

Shahn’s long career

Ben Shahn, Striking miners, Scotts Run, West Virginia, 1935
Shahn’s career took off in the 1930s as his brand of realism resonated during the Great Depression when American audiences demanded that art communicate directly and serve a social purpose. Works like his photograph and painting of striking miners from Scotts Run, West Virginia (1935 and 1937) chronicled that decade’s challenges and contributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts to use art to help the nation weather the crisis.
Ben Shahn, Scotts Run, West Virginia, 1937, tempera on paper, 22 5/8 × 28 1/4 inches, 57.5 x 71.8 cm (Whitney Museum of American Art)
From the 1940s until his death in 1969, as Abstract Expressionism came to the fore in the United States, Shahn’s style evolved and his works became more symbolic, expressionistic, and even surreal. But he continually strove to portray dramatic, but universal human experiences like tragedy and survival in Liberation (1945), Age of Anxiety (1953), and the Lucky Dragon series (1960-62) with empathy and sincerity. The commitment to social justice that he established so clearly in The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti persisted throughout his career.
Essay by Dr. Lara Kuykendall
Additional resources:
Alejandro Anreus, ed. Ben Shahn and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (Jersey City, NJ: The Jersey City Museum and Rutgers University Press, 2001.)
Susan Chevlowe, Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn *Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).
Morse, John. “Ben Shahn: An Interview,” Magazine of Art 37, no. 4 (April 1944), pp. 138-139.
Ben Shahn, Ben and Forrest Selvig, “Interview: Ben Shahn Talks with Forrest Selvig,” Archives of American Art Journal 17, no. 3 (1977), pp. 14-21.
The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1967, mosaic, Syracuse University

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