A mine disaster and those left behind: Ben Shahn’s Miners’ Wives

Shahn captures the tragic personal toll wrought by lack of regulation

Ben Shahn, Miners' Wives, c. 1948, tempera on panel, 121.9 x 91.4 cm (The Philadelphia Museum of Art) © Estate of Ben Shahn A conversation with Jessica T. Smith, Susan Gray Detweiler Curator of American Art, and Manager, Center for American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris

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Key points

  • The 1947 explosion in the Centralia mine in Illinois illustrated the dangerous conditions and lack of enforced regulations in the coal mining industry. Although hazards were long known at the site, this accident, which killed 111 men, raised public awareness around mining companies’ ongoing practice of neglect. While such tragedies have sometimes led to legal reform and occupational safety regulations, they continue to be a part of the history of industrial growth in the United States.
  • Social realist artists like Ben Shahn were committed to making art that would expose social problems and advocate for real change to better the lives of the working class. In this painting, he draws attention not to the dramatic events of the tragedy, but the personal impact of the death of these men on the wives and families left behind.

Go deeper

See this work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Watch a documentary on Ben Shahn

Read or hear about the 1947 Centralia Mine Explosion that inspired this painting

Listen to and read the lyrics from Woody Guthrie’s Dying Miner about the Centralia coal mine explosion

Read about the daily life of a coal miner’s wife in the early 20th century

See a timeline of significant changes in the history of occupational safety and health in the U.S.

Learn about Social Realism from primary source documents


More to think about

There continue to be industries and jobs that put people at risk either through occupational hazards or a lack of industrial safety measures. What can artists, the media, or other activist groups do to raise awareness and create change?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.