Ben Shahn, Miners’ Wives

An explosion in a mine kills 111, Shahn captures the devastation of those left behind.

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

[0:00] [music]

Woody Guthrie: [0:00] [singing] It happened an hour ago, way down in this tunnel of coal. The gas caught fire from somebody’s lamp, and the miners are choking in smoke.

[ music ends]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:11] We’re in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in painting storage. We’ve pulled out a rack with a large painting by Ben Shahn. It depicts a mine disaster that killed 111 miners.

Dr. Jessica T. Smith: [0:30] It’s showing the aftermath of this horrible disaster. Through a doorway, we see two men in suits with slightly stooped shoulders, walking back towards the mine building. But in the foreground, we have a woman. Her hands clasped, her head covered, looking left with oblique look on her face like, “What is to be done?”

[0:49] It seems clear that the two figures have just delivered the news that her husband, a miner, was killed in this tragedy.

Dr. Zucker: [0:56] So she’s now a widow. To the left side of the painting, we see two smaller figures, an older woman and a child, presumably her child, and perhaps her mother, but this woman on the right, the largest figure, is still by herself. Those eyes have no pupils. We see instead these large black circles, and there’s an emphasis on the inner corners of the eye, which makes it seem as if she’s been up all night waiting for word.

Dr. Smith: [1:23] The eyes are so dark, and while they’re pointing straight ahead, it’s as though she were gazing into space, lost in her own thoughts.

Dr. Zucker: [1:31] But because she looks at us, as a viewer standing before this painting, I feel implicated in this tragedy, in her suffering.

Dr. Smith: [1:40] The figures are walking away. She’s been left alone, and yet the older woman and the child are now her responsibility.

Dr. Zucker: [1:47] The artist, Ben Shahn, is often referred to as a Social Realist, an American artist interested in revealing social problems of his own era. The United States has a long history of confronting issues of industrial safety. There is this history of tragedy being followed by reform.

Dr. Smith: [2:04] While inspired by this mining disaster, he’s trying to touch upon this bigger social issue by focusing on the personal impact that the lack of oversight, the lack of mine regulation, the loss of life is having on what feels like a very real individual.

Dr. Zucker: [2:20] He’s not showing the mine explosion.

Dr. Smith: [2:22] It’s the impact, what’s left after that disaster. That’s also signified by the clothes that are hanging in the upper left-hand corner. These miners would be coming from the mines covered with coal dust, hang up their clothes and put on clean clothes so that that mine dust wouldn’t be polluting their homes.

[2:42] Ironically, it is that buildup of coal dust within the mine that wasn’t addressed properly that led to the catastrophe. That hanging clothing signifies both the absence of the miner who’s been killed and the cause of the explosion itself.

Dr. Zucker: [2:58] Look at the way that the artist has handled this painting. The brick wall that takes up two-thirds of the surface and then the floor are so flat. They’re absolutely abstract. But Shahn has decided to render every single brick individually.

Dr. Smith: [3:12] Like hand-making bricks, or hand-setting bricks into a wall.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] It’s a kind of labor. There’s also real abstraction to the human figures. This is not naturalistic painting even though it is figurative.

Dr. Smith: [3:23] It’s a very flat plane of modulated color, which is then turned into the body of the woman, or suggests the fabric of her clothing by these very inky, dark, heavy lines.

Dr. Zucker: [3:35] This woman is monumental, she’s almost life-size. The older woman and the child are at a medium scale, and then the two male figures are quite tiny in comparison, emphasizing a sense of isolation.

[3:46] Reports had been written repeatedly and recently about the dangers in this mine, but the company that was in control of the mine chose not to address them, presumably because it was too expensive.

[3:56] What we’re seeing here is the very real human cost of industrialization made tangible through the emotions of this woman’s face and her hands.

Dr. Smith: [4:04] Which are so emotional on the one hand, but so restrained. She’s not wailing, she’s not sobbing, it’s a contained anguish.

Dr. Zucker: [4:12] And I see that in her eyes, but also in the firmness with which her mouth is set. It’s as if she had anticipated this danger all her life and here her greatest fear has come to pass.

Dr. Smith: [4:22] Which is, I think, a condition that people associated with mines. To live with it was dangerous work. People went into this business knowing there was some risk.

Dr. Smith: [4:31] This is a painting that was made in 1948, and yet we’re still grappling with these same issues. Finding the right balance between efficiency, cost, and safety. This painting reminds us of the impact on human life when we get it wrong.

[4:45] [music]

Woody Guthrie: [4:45] [singing] Goodbye to Dickie and Honey. Goodbye to the wife that I love. Lot of these men not coming home, tonight when the work whistle blows. Dear sisters and brothers goodbye, dear mother and father goodbye…

Cite this page as: Jessica T. Smith, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "Ben Shahn, Miners’ Wives," in Smarthistory, February 1, 2019, accessed July 18, 2024,