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The Parable

On view

The Parable

Artist: Ben Shahn (American, 1898 - 1969)

Date: 1958
Medium: Tempera on cardboard
Overall: 48 x 37 3/4in. (121.9 x 95.9cm)
Signed: l.r.: 'Ben Shahn'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 58.272
Label Text
In the 1930s and 1940s Ben Shahn devoted much of his art to affecting political change. He championed in particular workers' rights around the globe, but he also depicted scenes of urban life. Because of his leftist leanings, by the 1950s Shahn was blacklisted and investigated by the FBI.

By the late 1950s, Shahn's subject matter grew more allegorical, as with his painting The Parable. If a parable is a story that illustrates a moral or religious principle, what in this work is Shahn trying to teach the viewer? He depicts a man who appears to be drowning. It is probable that the conditions of the Cold War, artistic censorship, and a perceived lack of spiritual direction were among the concerns Shahn tries to convey.

It should be noted that Shahn was a skilled artist but purposefully chose a sharp, almost unskilled-looking style to convey a feeling of great anxiety in The Parable.


Text Entries

Ben Shahn had an extraordinary genius for weaving his ideas and emotions into lines and configurations,

which, after first conceived, were reborn and regrouped in different contexts and media to contemplate, celebrate, or castigate whatever was in the artist’s mind at the time. Thus, when we look at this partially submerged and seemingly desperate figure, similar images rush by in a mental review. There is the imposing figure in the 1963 serigraph, Maximus of Tyre, imploring mankind to forget their differences in worship of “God Himself, the Father and Fashioner of all that is.”(1) He appears again in the wash drawing The Drowning Hero (Meyer P. Potamkin, Philadelphia), with which the Utica painting perhaps has the closest affinity.(2) In Shahn’s Haggadah for Passover, the image of an outstretched arm and powerful hand is found repeatedly throughout the illustrations and has been referred to as a “leitmotif.”(3)

Shahn painted The Parable in 1958, soon after he had completed a series of lectures at Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. The essence of these lectures has come down to us in his fascinating little book, The Shape of Content (Harvard University Press, 1957), in which he exhibits an unusual discipline and acuity in analyzing the making of art, its meaning, its context, its form, and its place in history. Stylistically, Shahn had arrived at a mature expression, where the graphic line, jagged much of the time, is combined with an exceedingly painterly application of colors---colors that refuse to be bound by contours. Shahn, while remaining a figurative painter at a time when abstract art was the dominant interest of the art world, incorporated much of what was abstract and expressive in his painting. The hues of the sky in this painting, mostly in shades of lavender, pink, and light blue, are reflected in the face of the man. By their appearance both in back and in front of the upstretched arm, they deny the background any traditional depth and anchor the image firmly to the two-dimensional surface. The ultramarine blue and black foreground, in which the figure is immersed, is enlivened by movements of the water, indicated by black, calligraphic swirls, which, as well as the intricate curls of the black beard, reveal the artist’s joy in graphic details in startling contrast to his broad-brush application of colors. The troubled brow registers fear or despair, and the intersecting lines of the arm imbue it with life. The large, brooding eyes will look at us again in many future paintings. Shahn’s graphic line, seemingly naive, is based on consummate drawing skills.

The meaning of this painting is enigmatic. The title does not clarify the intent of the artist. But then, Shahn by this time had rejected the forthright message of his earlier Social Realism paintings and his later interest in what he himself referred to as a more personal realism, that is “personal observation of the way of people, the mood of life and places.”(4) He was reaching for symbols that would have a universal quality, and it is in this category that we must place The Parable. We see a man in need of rescue. Is he in fact physically threatened and reaching for help from God or man? Or is it Homo sapiens who needs rescuing from himself? Has science taken man to a point of no return? If we are puzzled, it is because Shahn wanted it so. His intent, if we dare to conjecture, was not to illustrate a specific parable, but to move us to think, to feel.

This work joins many others, painted by Ben Shahn about this time, which bear witness to his deep concern with contemporary society’s overwhelming reliance on science and its skepticism with its negative effect on traditional beliefs. Shahn maintained that man must have some beliefs “to which he may attach his affections,”(5) and he was convinced that “if we are to have values, a spiritual life, a culture, these things must find their imagery and their interpretation through the arts.”(6)



1. Kenneth W. Prescott, The Complete Graphic Works of Ben Shahn (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1973), p. 54.

2. Bernarda Bryson Shahn, Ben Shahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1972), p. 200.

3. Ben Shahn, Haggadah for Passover, with translation, introduction, and notes by Cecil Roth (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1965), p. viii.

4. Ben Shahn, The Biography of a Painting (New York: Paragraphic Books, 1956), p. 51.

5. Ben Shahn, Paragraphs on Art (Roosevelt, N.J.: privately printed, 1952), p. 4.

6. Ibid.


Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).