Benton Murdoch Spruance was one of the most influential and prolific color lithographers in the history of twentieth-century modernism. Innovative in the field of color lithography, Spruance, through his diligence and experimentation, was able to push the medium to new levels. He developed techniques that are still in use today, including subtractive lithography, a practice which allows the artist to use a single stone for several colors.
Born in 1904, Spruance grew up in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia. He began working as an architectural draftsman after he graduated from high school. While studying in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture, he attended courses in drawing and etching at the Graphic Sketch Club, a free art school. A life-long interest in the subject of labor began when he worked in a West Virginia logging camp for several months in 1924-25. Following that, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to fulfill his ambition of becoming an artist.
In 1928, a Cresson scholarship from the Academy enabled Spruance to spend several months in Paris. Spruance studied at the Académie Montparnasse under French painter André Lhote (1885-1962), a practitioner of cubism. He was introduced to lithography at the distinguished Paris print workshop of Edmond Desjobert, which whom he would later work producing many of his lithographs. Returning to the states, he taught and served as chair of the Fine Arts department at Beaver College in Pennsylvania, and was later named Director of Graphic Arts at the Philadelphia College of Art. Spruance was the recipient of many prestigious awards, including two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and two Cresson Scholarships, the second of which helped him continue his studies with Lhote in France.
Spruance is primarily recognized as a lithographer of social, mythological and religious subject matter. 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. His later work shifts to include more abstract and evocative imagery. In the forties, Spruance began producing moody, psychologically charged lithographic portraits of women, followed by mystically tinted work, based on biblical passages, that became increasingly subtle and sculptural in effect.
In 1967, the year that Spruance died, a major retrospective of his work was held at the Philadelphia College of Arts. There have also been other exhibitions of his art at the Art Institute of Chicago; The Guggenheim Museum; and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Many institutions, including the National Gallery of Art; the New York Public Library; and the Carnegie Institute, hold permanent collections of his work.
To view more prints by Benton Murdoch Spruance, we invite you to visit the Old Print Shop (our NYC partners) or view the prints on their website.