Benton Spruance. American, 1904 - 1967

Artist Statement


The Philadelphia College of Art is pleased to present this retrospective exhibition of the lithographs of Benton Spruance, in honor of his distinguished achievement as artist and as a member of its faculty since 1934.

Philadelphia College of Art, September 15 — October 6, 1967

Mother of Birds

This exhibition is to honor the long and distinguished teaching career of Benton Spruance. Ben is a recognized artist and is the "Dean" of Philadelphia lithog- raphers. It is in this field that he demonstrates his great knowledge and his great love of this artistic medium. No print ever leaves his studio that does not measure up to his scrupulous standards of quality, both of esthetics and of craftsmanship. He has set a high mark of attainment for the host of students who have had the good fortune to "sit at his feet."

Ben's achievements are due primarily to the immense effort and all-encompassing concentration he devotes to each undertaking. From original drawing to finished lithograph there is meticulous attention to detail and to perfection.

Secondly, his accomplishments reflect his great understanding of those masters who have preceded him and have, to a large extent, molded him, even as he has stimulated his students.

As a result his lectures are a joy to hear. Many times I have witnessed his classes, sitting spellbound while listening to his scholarly discourses. I have always shared with his students their enthusiasm and interest. Never have any of us left one of his always informal "talks" without deriving new insights and renewed interests. We regret that we will not be favored in the future in the same inimitable way.

Regardless of what has been said of his artistry and teaching, both of these qualities are overshadowed by Ben as a human personality. His warmth and spontaneity, his understanding and sympathy, mark him as an "homme extraor- dinaire." All of those who have studied with him will regret deeply his retire- ment. May this exhibition be a token of the love and appreciation we all have for him. May it also bear witness to the fact that we look forward, with great anticipation, to those works of art from his heart, mind and hand which we expect during the ensuing years spent in health, happiness and his ever-present industry.


The People Work — Evening

C. J. Holmes — at one time Director of the National Gallery of Art in London and himself an artist — once wrote a book on Rembrandt's development as a printmaker. He showed how the artist started as an ordinary practitioner in a graphic medium, and by unremitting effort at self-education and self-criticism attained extraordinary creative facility. The artist taught himself: he learned how to profit from his mistakes and overcome his deficiencies. To be sure, there are still other types of artists who are born with a kind of inner grace and immedi- ate access to full powers. A Toulouse-Lautrec or a Pascin, for example, did not have to undergo an elaborate metamorphosis to acquire mastery. Their facility was innate, and whatever they touched, however casually, was endowed with aesthetic vitality.

In his artistic development Benton Spruance followed the way of Rembrandt, the long hard way. He made his first lithograph in 1928 while in Paris on a Cresson Fellowship from the Academy. Somehow he had found his way to the lithographic printing shop of Desjobert. He remembers seeing Yasuo Kuniyoshi and John Carroll working there. He made several lithographs, and upon his return in 1930 on another Cresson, spent some time at the shop watching the workmen print. Because he had a smattering of French, Desjobert allowed him to hang around the atelier in return for acting as interpreter for those Americans who spoke no French. In this way he learned the rudiments of lithographic tech- nique, a subject which was not then taught in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. During the interval of almost forty years since his first attempts, Spruance has made according to the record well over four hundred lithographs.

His very early prints — he has since destroyed many of them — have no great aesthetic distinction. They are thin and lacking in substance and form. Much of Spruance's early training had been architectural, and was not the best prepara- tion for graphic expression. Even the instruction in drawing prevailing in art schools had not advanced much beyond the conventional shades and shadows. A whole generation of young artists had to overcome their early training to conform with the more dynamic form-perceptions of the Post-Impressionists. Further- more, at the time Spruance admired and was influenced by Geoge Bellows, whose work was no paradigm of expressive draughtsmanship. There was much that Spruance had to learn over again.

In Philadelphia he found a lithograph printer who had a press at home and who was willing to print for him and other artists in his spare time. He was Theodore Cuno, an old German craftsman who had printed for Joseph Penned at the Ketterlinus Co. and was then working as a color prover for another firm. The association with Cuno lasted for a long time, and again contributed to Ben's technical proficiency. If his style lacked distinction in the early days, at least his subject matter was novel and engaging. In the decade of the 1930's subject matter was important and social comment was in the air. Bellows led him to stress caricature above character in his delineation of types. Bellows likewise demonstrated the possibilities of sports as subject matter, and Ben responded in a series of football subjects. His Backfield in Motion of 1932 is the earliest litho- graph in the exhibition. His Pass to the Flat of 1939 is a measure of his develop- ment during the decade. Similarly in another theme, views of Philadelphia, one can trace an increasing maturity of style from Bulldog Edition of 1932 to the Bridge from Race Street of 1939. The decade of the 1930's was for Spruance a period of experimentation and groping toward a more personal style. Around 1935-36 one seems to sense the influence of his friend Franklin Watkins in the angular gestures and the heightened intensity of expression of such prints as Philatelists or Caustic Comment. What was idiosyncratic and natural in Watkins became strained and all too obvious in Spruance. In due course Ben worked himself into modes of expression somewhat more sympathetic to his nature. He made a brief excursus into a kind of cubist stylization (Leger?) in such stones as American Pattern: Barns and Arrangement for Drums of 1941. One might also say that Karl Hofer and Max Beckmann, who were favorite artists among others, offered suggestions leading toward a more monumental style. But the recital of influences is an unprofitable task. Most artists are sensitive to currents in their own times, and take suggestions wherever they find them. All artists worth their salt take such hints and make them their own.

In 1937, after much preliminary study and revision, Spruance issued a set of four large lithographs The People Work, and in the following year a similar set The People Play. Both were concerned with a certain kind of social commentary, a synthesis or documentary montage of urban life. They were sociological treatises in visual terms. They marked the culmination of a phase: the artist did not pursue the theme in the same way again. As time went on he became more free and less literal, he learned that it was possible to suggest as well as to spell out. His inspiration began to take a more symbolic form — interpretations in modern dress of classical myths and biblical themes. He continued in many instances to use the suite or sequence as the frame-work of his conception, the numbers in each series often running from three to ten units.

The beginnings of his use of symbolic interpretation are evident as early as 1934 (The Annunciation). Typical is his treatment of the Wise Men theme. The idea must have appealed to him, for he made three versions, the first in 1940 entitled The Gift of the Kings and the third in 1943 called Epiphany. In each of the prints, one Wise Man in academic robes offers a book to the Child seated in his mother's lap; another bears the attributes of the physician, and the third the suggestion of a religious ministry. In a corner in the darkness lies a man in chains. The artist thus voices the hope that education, science, and religion will free a new generation from the bondage suffered by the old. Such graphic statements of humane values were edifying concepts, even if the artist's execution was not always commensurate with the grandeur of the idea. Spruance, however, went on during the late nineteen-forties and throughout the nineteen-fifties to refine his technical means and to bring his philosophical reflections to greater maturity. A list of some of the titles will suggest the range and development of his exploration in the fields of myth and scripture during that period: among suites, Ecclesiastes 1945, Vanities I and II 1949-50, Job 1951, St. Francis 1953, Minotaur 1953, Centaur 1954, Four Northern Saints 1954, Resurrection 1955, The Anabasis of Saint- Jean Perse 1957; among single stones, Behold the Man 1947, Prometheus 1953, Priestess 1954, Penelope 1956, Magdalene 1956, Black Friday 1958.

With an intelligence and social conscience as alert to current events as Spruance's it was natural that he would have something to say about World War II. He offered a prophetic glimpse of it in The Windshield of 1939 (from a planned review of the 1930's which never got beyond two stones) as well as sorrowing and bitter reflections in Lamentation 1941 and Souvenir of Lidice 1943. Perhaps the most striking of his war prints were Riders of the Apocalypse with its array of airplanes in the sky, and Fathers and Sons, a tragic commentary on war's recur- rent pattern, both of 1943.

Low Entrance to a High Place

It must be kept in mind that Spruance's printmaking activity was always concur- rent with a heavy teaching load and an active participation in public affairs. He is not and never has been an ivory-tower artist. He has been President of Artists' Equity and helped to shape its policy at a crucial time. He is a member of the Philadelphia Art Commission which acts as a watchdog over the city's archi- tectural beauty. As a knowledgeable trustee of the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, he has been active in its guidance and wise in his counsel. He is professor of Art and Chairman of the Department at Beaver College, and teaches painting, printmaking, art history and print history. He built up the Depart- ment of Printmaking at the Philadelphia College of Art and was its head until his retirement. Because of his experience as a teacher and art historian, he is an articulate interpreter of his own work, although on principle he seldom attempts it. And if I may insert a personal note and mention still another of his activities, I would cite the "Brain Trust," an informal group which met for dinner once a week at Imhoffs Restaurant during the early 1940's. The regular members consisted of Ben Spruance, Bob Riggs, Franklin Watkins, Alex Abels, and myself. Guests were often invited, and we generally managed to settle the affairs of the world — to our own satisfaction at least. One of the pleasant customs of the group was the rule that any member who won an award or prize had to stand treat for the crowd. Ben and Watty bore the brunt of such hospitality.

I have spoken of the beginnings of Spruance's education in printmaking opera- tions in Desjobert's atelier, and of his working hand in hand with Theodore Cuno. This training was continued partly by working much later in several foreign printing shops (the Cursen Press in London, U. M. Grafik in Copen- hagen, and Desjobert twice again in Paris) but chiefly by his own manipulations on his own press. Lithography, more than any other graphic technique, requires for its mastery considerably more than learning from a technical manual or pedagogic demonstration: it calls for long practical experience above all, for dex- terity and know-how, the actual feel of the hand and wrist. The true lithographer learns by doing. And Ben, as a true lithographer, began to print his own litho- graphs. He first had access to a press in the school at Broad and Pine, where he taught lithography. Incidentally, one learns technique quickly when one has to teach it to others. In 1953 he bought a lithograph press for himself and set it up in his studio at Beaver College. From then on nearly all of his lithographs, with a few exceptions, were printed by him there or later in his private studio on Germantown Avenue, where he had installed his press in 1964. By an arduous process of self-training he has become a master printer. There is literally nothing that he cannot print in black or in color. Technique has become second nature to him, and this facility has in turn widened his creative horizons: he knows what effects are possible on stone. Although he has devoted all his life to lithography, he did make a few essays in other graphic mediums: in 1951 he executed a few woodcuts on the theme of Job, and in 1953 he made at least one etching and aquatint. He also has painted in oils off and on during his career. In 1963 he painted a notable mural for the chapel in the New House of Detention at Holmes- burg. (The lithograph Woman Offering Life in the present exhibition is a varia- tion of a motif in the mural.)

There is, however, more to a fine lithograph than printing technique: there is also the " writing" on the stone — the how in addition to the what was said. The message never gave Ben much trouble. With his temperament and wide interests the idea always came first and he had plenty of them. It was in the area of what the conception was to become that the struggle lay. As T. S. Eliot said: "Between the conception and the creation — between the motion and the response — falls the shadow." To eliminate the shadow was his greatest task in self-education. He was aware of the problem and was determined to solve it as far as he was able. He had been handicapped by inadequate instruction in draughtsmanship. He set about training his eyes in tactile and form perceptions. Glasses helped, too, for he had certain defects of vision. But the problem was not entirely on the physical plane: it involved a change of attitude, a new approach. In a great work of art, form and content have equal validity and are perfectly fused. Each modi- fies the other to produce the resultant work of enduring merit. Originally Ben had considered the execution subordinate to the idea. He had to learn to become as emotionally and creatively involved in the means as he was in the meaning. It seems to me that the major break-through in this direction came about by his increasing involvement in color. There are a number of color prints in which the motivation appears to be exclusively pleasurable. He apparently was striving toward aesthetic realizations, playing with color and form, with lines and shapes for their own sake. With this self-knowledge and experience he has been able to achieve this ultimate fusion in his later years.

In the current exhibition, which the artist himself selected, he has devoted thirty- five prints, or half of the total, to prints made in the 1960's, leaving the other half to represent the production of thirty-two earlier years. He has thus indicated his strong preference for the work of his immediate maturity. It is difficult to select notable prints among so many contenders. My own preference would be for such masterly interpretations as Lazarus, Odysseus, and Mother of Birds (Leda) , or the tender Winter Birds with its very personal associations for the artist. The beautiful color lithograph The Spectre of Moby Dick was the first devoted to the subject, and thus a forerunner to the great print sequence dramatizing the Passion of Ahab and his conflict with the White Whale, or Evil Incarnate. The series has been over two years in the making. None of the twenty-six large prints which constitute this magnum opus are shown here because they have not yet been formally published.

Spruance has always worked in that tradition of graphic art which regards the print as meaningful communication. This tradition has not been popular in the past few decades with those artists who communicate little else than a sense of their own virtuosity. And they, many of them, are very much in vogue and suc- cessful. But Ben has stuck to his high purpose without compromise. He has worked long and faithfully in the vineyards of art. This exhibition is a tribute to his achievement, and incidentally a record of a life-long love affair with the lithograph stone.

Carl Zigrosser


A pioneer in color lithography, Benton Spruance spent most of his life in Philadelphia, where he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and became one of the city's leading artists. In the twenties and thirties Spruance was known for prints that one critic described as his "velvety urban scenes and 'social conscious' series," which chronicled the life of ordinary men and women at work and play. However, Spruance was also a painter and draftsman who during this period took advantage of two Guggenheim fellowships to travel throughout the United States and Europe and sketch landscapes.

In the forties Spruance began producing moody, psychologically charged lithographic portraits of women, followed by mystically tinged work, based on biblical passages, that became increasingly subtle and sculptural in effect. Despite the demand for his work (he produced more than 500 lithographs during his career), Spruance continued to teach. At the time of his death, he was chairman of the art department at Beaver College and had recently retired from the chairmanship of the printmaking department at Philadelphia College of Art.

National Museum of American Art (CD-ROM) (New York and Washington D.C.: MacMillan Digital in cooperation with the National Museum of American Art, 1996)

born 1904 Philadelphia PA
died 1967 Philadelphia PA

studied architecture - University of Pennsylvania
studied painting - Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

public collections
Library of Congress Washington DC
Museum of American Art, Smithsonian, Washington DC
National Gallery Washington DC
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Philadelphia
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia



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