© President and Fellows of Harvard College
Identification and Creation
Object Number
Ben Shahn, American (Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania 1898 - 1969 New York, NY)
Judge Webster Thayer
Work Type
Physical Descriptions
Gouache on beige laid paper, mounted on masonite
31.4 x 23.7 cm (12 3/8 x 9 5/16 in.)
frame: 48.3 x 40.6 x 1.9 cm (19 x 16 x 3/4 in.)
Ben Shahn; to Philip Wittenberg; to his son, Jonathan Wittenberg; gift; to Harvard Art Museum, 2009.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Beatrice A. and Jonathan B. Wittenberg
Artwork © Estate of Ben Shahn / Licensed by VAGA, NY
Accession Year
Object Number
Modern and Contemporary Art
The Harvard Art Museums encourage the use of images found on this website for personal, noncommercial use, including educational and scholarly purposes. To request a higher resolution file of this image, please submit an online request.
The trial(s) of reputed anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and their subsequent execution mesmerized and inflamed the United States in the 1920s. The Italian immigrants, arrested in 1920 for the murder of a shoe factory paymaster and his guard, were executed in 1927. Many observers were convinced that the men were innocent and that the trial had been a travesty. In 1931-32, several years after Sacco and Vanzetti's death, Ben Shahn produced a series of twenty-three gouaches illustrating what he referred to as "the passion" of Sacco and Vanzetti. Shahn recalled: "Ever since I could remember I'd wished I'd been lucky enough to be alive at a great time-when something big was going on, like the Crucifixion. And suddenly I realized I was. Here I was living through another crucifixion. Here was something to paint!"(1)

"Judge Webster Thayer" is one of the series of gouaches, which serve almost as "snapshots" in a kind of album of the narrative. Most (if not all) of them are based on newspaper photographs of the large cast of characters. Perhaps the most haunting images are those of the two men themselves: shackled together, heads tilted ("Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco"), or chained to their guards ("Sacco and Vanzetti and their Guards"), Vanzetti sitting upright on a spindly chair. The gouaches also include posed views of Sacco's family ("Nicola Sacco's Mother and Father, in his Home in Torremaggiore, Italy; and his Nephew and Nieces," "Nicola Sacco, His Wife, and their Son Dante," "Sacco's Family after the Verdict"), witnesses who testified to their innocence ("Three Witnesses," "Six Witnesses who bought eels from Vanzetti," "Enrico Bastoni, Baker who bought eels from Vanzetti on the morning of December 24, 1919"), and even a view of Vanzetti's home town in Italy. There are images of the lawyers ("The Four Prosecutors," "Attorney for the Defense, William G. Thompson") and The Lowell Committee, a trio of three men (headed by Harvard's president A. Lawrence Lowell) convened to pronounce on the fairness of the trial.

Judge Webster Thayer appears in two of the gouaches, perhaps because he presided over several of the sequence of trials. In this drawing he appears as a bust, with a granitic head supported by diminutive shoulders. The blotted quality of gouache or watercolor that defines his face and wrinkles is offset by the white gouache frosting that delineate his hair, eyebrows, moustache, and beard. The Fogg drawing appears to be based on a photograph of the judge.(2) Shahn used the same bust-length format for his portrait of the defense attorney William G. Thompson, whose damply stippled jacket provides an animated counterpoint to his inscrutable face, his eyes invisible behind his glasses, and Governor Alvin T. Fuller. In the second gouache, the judge, swathed in his robes, is shown with an open book. His visage is more aged, and his presence more ceremonial than in the more intense bust-length image. The judge also appears in the window of the courthouse in the large tempera painting, "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti," 1931-32, now at the Whitney.

Felix Frankfurter, in his lengthy discussion of the case in the "Atlantic Monthly," wrote disapprovingly of Judge Thayer: "I assert with deep regret, but without the slightest fear of disproof, that certainly in modern times Judge Thayer's opinion stands unmatched for discrepancies between what the record discloses and what the opinion conveys. His 25,000-word document [his opinion] cannot accurately be described otherwise than as a farrago of misquotations, misrepresentations, suppressions, and mutilations. The disinterested inquirer could not possibly derive from it a true knowledge of the new evidence that was submitted to him as the basis for a new trial."(3) Thayer was widely reviled for his unabashed prejudice against immigrants and radicals. Matthew Josephson, critic for "The New Republic," described Shahn's portrayal of Thayer as an equivalence of representation and moral character: "Here is fishy, green-eyed, bony-faced, lantern-jawed Thayer, painted for all posterity in his hollow robes of justice…."(4)

The gouaches in the "Sacco and Vanzetti" series were exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in New York in April 1932, only a few years after the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti. The exhibition was extremely popular with the public, attracting Italian immigrants and others who were not accustomed to the New York gallery scene. In October 1932, the works were exhibited at the Harvard Coop under the auspices of the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art (also included in the exhibition were ten works illustrating the Dreyfus Affair). Boston was the very epicenter of the whole affair, and President Lowell had been the chair of the Lowell Committee. Thayer's house had been bombed in September 1932 (he was not injured). According to the "Harvard Crimson," "although almost all of the pictures… merge on caricature, there is more of art than mere clever distortion in these gouaches. When the exhibit appeared at the Downtown Gallery… many were inclined to dismiss the whole of Shahn's work as comic-strip treatment of more serious topics, yet even the poignancy that speaks from each picture is testimony that there is something more permanent than grim humor here."(5)

Shahn revisited the subject of Sacco and Vanzetti twenty-five years after the trial in a cover illustration for "The Nation" (August 23, 1952). The drawing for the cover, which is in the Fogg collection (1956.184), is based on one of the gouaches in the 1931-32 series. Sacco and Vanzetti were also the subject of Shahn's mosaic mural at Syracuse University, installed in 1967.

(1) Frances Pohl, "Ben Shahn," San Francisco, 1993, p. 12.
(2) Reproduced in Alejandro Anreus, "Ben Shahn and the Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti," Newark, 2001, fig. 18.
(3) "Atlantic Monthly," March 1927, quoted in Anreus, 2001, p. 69.
(4) April 20, 1932; quoted in Pohl, 1993, p. 45.
(5) H.B., "'Passion of Sacco-Vanzetti' and Group of Dreyfus Water-Colors Open Art Society Exhibits at Coop," October 18, 1932.

Publication History

The Passion of Sacco-Vanzetti, exh. cat., The Downtown Gallery (New York, 1932), checklist no. 17

Martin H. Bush, Ben Shahn: The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (Syracuse, 1968), repr. p. 44

Ben Shahn: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., New Jersey State Museum (Trenton, NJ, 1969), no. 10

Kenneth W. Prescott, Ben Shahn Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art (Fukushima, 1991), no. 37, repr., p. 19

Frances K. Pohl, Ben Shahn, Pomegranate (San Francisco, 1993), repr. p. 42

Alejandro Anreus, Ben Shahn and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, exh. cat., Jersey City Museum (Jersey City, NJ, 2001), p. 117, repr. p. 47 (color), also repr. twice as fig. 17 on pp. 67 and 117

Exhibition History

Ben Shahn: The Passion of Sacco-Vanzetti, The Downtown Gallery, New York, 04/05/1932 - 04/17/1932

Ben Shahn, Harvard Cooperative Society, Cambridge, 10/17/1932 - 10/29/1932

Ben Shahn: A Retrospective Exhibition, New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, 09/20/1969 - 11/16/1969

Ben Shahn Retrospective Exhibition, Isetan Museum, Tokyo, 05/09/1991 - 05/28/1991; Himeji City Museum of Art, 07/13/1991 - 08/11/1991; Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art, Fukushima, 08/17/1991 - 09/15/1991; Museum of Fine Arts, Gifu, Gifu, 09/21/1991 - 10/20/1991; Daimaru Museum of Art, Osaka, 10/30/1991 - 11/11/1991

Ben Shahn and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, Jersey City Museum, Jersey City, 09/12/2001 - 12/16/2001

Subjects and Contexts

Collection Highlights

Related Works

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art at am_moderncontemporary@harvard.edu