Four Piece Orchestra shows three members of an improvised or amateur band in a greatly simplified outdoor setting, seated on a wooden bench in a park or village square. As in other paintings by Ben Shahn, the image is inspired by one of his photographs. In an interview with Richard Doud in 1964, Shahn confessed that his need to take photographs had arisen precisely from the sight of a street band: “I was working around 14th Street and that group of blind musicians were constantly playing there, I would walk in front of them and sketch, and walk backwards and sketch and I found it was inadequate. So I asked my brother to buy me a camera because I didn’t have the money for it.”
Except for the cello, all the instruments are typical of popular music; indeed, perhaps this is why the artist draws a distinction between the working-class garb of the violinist and guitarist and the dark, formal suit of the cellist. The solemnity of the image led Gail Levin to interpret it as an allegory in which the members of the orchestra symbolise a situation alien to them which, judging by the date of the painting, could be the Second World War.