Ben Shahn (1898-1969)
The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti
Tempera and gouache on canvas mounted on composition board
Overall: 84 × 48 in. (213.4 × 121.9 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Edith and Milton Lowenthal in memory of Juliana Force
Rights and Reproductions Information
Art © Estate of Ben Shahn / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti is one of a series of twenty-three paintings that Ben Shahn made about the controversial trial of two working-class Italian-American immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.In 1927, the men were sentenced to death for armed robbery and the murder of a shoe company paymaster and his guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts. After a jury convicted them on the basis of circumstantial evidence, three specially appointed commissioners upheld the death sentence verdict. The case caused public outrage since the case against the two men was weak, and many believed that they were the victims of ethnic discrimination, right-wing politics, and a corrupt police investigation. Their execution provoked international riots and protest demonstrations. In this large-scale canvas, Shahn vividly portrays all the characters: Sacco and Vanzetti lying dead in their coffins; the unsympathetic commissioners who upheld the death sentence after years of appeal; and Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the trial and passed sentence, taking an oath in the courthouse. Two members of the committee proffer lilies, a fraudulent mourning gesture in light of their decision. As a well-known symbol of the crucified Christ, the lilies also suggest that Sacco and Vanzetti are martyrs, punished for sins they did not commit.