Ben Shahn was a union member, and remained committed to telling the stories, and the hardships of workers and laborers throughout his lengthy career. Shahn imbues Miners' Wives with a haunting sense of sadness. The artist depicted three figures in front of a red brick wall. The main focus, however, is the woman at right in the foreground, wrapped in a thin shawl, standing with arms clasped in front of her. Behind her another woman sits with a small child in her lap while above her a man's jacket and pants hang on a hook on the wall. In the background, visible through a rectangular doorway in the wall, two male figures in black coats and hats stand facing a building some distance behind them. The theme of the painting appears to be waiting for news of their husbands', miners, fates.
Shahn often drew inspiration for paintings from illustrations he had made for articles. The idea for this and five other paintings on this topic came from illustrations he was commissioned to create for a Harper's magazine article about the Centralia, Illinois mine disaster that killed 111 miners. The article was published in March 1948, and titled "The Blast in Centralia No. 5: A Mine Disaster No One Stopped." Long after its publication, the fate of the miners and their families stayed with Shahn; he felt compelled to use his art to further their story. In this painting, Shahn concentrates on the wives' agony as they wait endless hours for their husbands to return home, and then, depicts the harsh reality of their lives as widows. The two men in the distance, while ambiguous, perhaps represent the messengers of this tragic news.
The topic of mines was familiar to Shahn as he himself had gone into mines earlier and his second wife grew up in a mining area. Further, Shahn was a lifelong supporter of laborers and unions, such as the United Mine Workers Union. Possessing a personal connection to the subject, this painting demonstrates Shahn's expertise as a figurative, realist artist, mastery at creating works that emotionally connected with viewers and his ability to capture the stories of important current events.
Egg tempera on board - Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania