Benton Murdoch Spruance
Benton Murdoch Spruance was much more than a distinguished artist of national renown. His career focussed in a large part upon service to the art community, not only in Philadelphia, but throughout the nation as well, and much of his importance lies in all that he was able to accomplish for his fellow artists.
He had a keen sense of the place of the artist in the life of the community, and as a founder of the Philadelphia chapter of Artists Equity, he helped to give to the individual artist a strong voice in community affairs. The city of Philadelphia is indebted to Spruance for much of its “public” art, the sculptures in open spaces and works in public buildings, for after his appointment to the Philadelphia Art Commission in 1953, he was instrumental in securing the approval by the city council of an ordinance requiring one percent of the cost of public buildings to be allocated for works of art.
Spruance’s natural gifts as a teacher and administrator were signalled by awards, several honorary degrees, and appointments to administrative positions at various institutions of learning in the Philadelphia area. Teaching, quite apart from its practical aspects, was to him an important function of the artist, and he brought to this profession a keen understanding of the learning process and a will to share his knowledge in as creative a manner as possible.
Along with his colleagues Jerome Kaplan and Samuel Maitin, he helped establish Prints in Progress, a program designed to bring printmaking directly to the young people of Philadelphia’s public schools through demonstrations in which they could participate. Conceived by Walter L. Wolf, the program was then under the auspices of the Philadelphia Print Club.
Although Spruance was well known as a painter, his greatest successes were achieved in graphic art, specifically in lithography. The art of lithography was advanced through Spruance’s early experiments in color printing.
The memorial collection of his work now in the Free Library of Philadelphia was established in 1968 by Emerson Greenaway, then director of the Free Library and a close friend of Benton Spruance. It is composed of more than 450 of his prints, studies for paintings and prints, color separations, photographs and memorabilia. Appropriately, these materials are now a matchless resource in an educational institution to which the general public has ready access.
The closely formed body of Spruance’s art reflects the life of the man himself. His prints, taken in chronological sequence, constitute a unique record of his times, his world, and his experience. But above all he emerges clearly as a warm, compassionate human being.
Spruance was born in Philadelphia in 1904 and was educated in local schools. He studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Graphic Sketch Club.
In both his junior and his senior year at the Academy, he won the William Emlen Cresson Travelling Scholarship, which enabled him to go to France. In Paris he tried his hand at lithography for the first time at the studio of Jacques and Edmond Desjobert. This was in 1928, the beginning of his career as an artist. Also in 1928 he married Winnifred Glover, a source of strength and inspiration throughout his life.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, when Spruance was on the threshold of his career in art, the preferred medium in print making was etching. Very small gemlike prints in very large cream colored mats were the fashion, and they appeared frequently on the walls of collectors. Lithography and other print media were not dead, however. Indeed, the printmaking world was very much alive in all its variations, and experiments in new methods were frequent, especially after 1933, during the period of the WPA (Works Progress Administration).
Benton Spruance, however continued to make lithographs and to concentrate on experiments in methods and techniques. In this sense he was something of a pioneer, especially in his experiments in the use of color.
His gifts as an artist were soon recognised. His paintings were exhibited widely, and his prints, also shown in New York and other cities, won prizes in open competitions sponsored by the Philadelphia Print Club. From this time on, his reputation as a major artist grew and spread. He received commissions to paint murals and to illustrate books as well.
Throughout his career he received many honours for his achievements, among them the Philadelphia Art Alliance Medal of Achievement, and election to membership in the National Academy of Design and in the American Institute of Architects.
He began work in 1965 on a set of prints that are generally regarded as his most masterful works. These are the twenty six lithographs based on his reading of Moby Dick, themes from which recur often in the prints made during the last two decades of his life. The prints were exhibited for the very first time in 1968.
Spruance died in December 1967.