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The Art of JAMA
September 6, 2016

Nocturne: Ben Shahn

JAMA. 2016;316(9):910-911. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.14460

The American painter and photographer Ben Shahn (1898-1969) created art to raise awareness of the economic challenges faced by working men and women in the United States. His allies in the quest for social justice included political activists, visual artists, and traveling folk musicians, many of whom were attuned to the rhythms of small town life. In Shahn’s 1949 painting Nocturne, two men are sitting on a park bench sharing a song. One is dressed in a laborer’s threadbare suit, and the other, with a battered guitar, may be an itinerant musician. The print of his bright yellow shirt is in tune with the fanning background of leaves and branches. Shahn’s purpose in painting this scene was to capture the intensity of musical expression on the faces of the singers as they anticipate one another’s changes of pitch and harmony. In the 1940s Shahn often crossed paths with folk musicians who sang songs of hardship and toil.