Germantown celebrates one of its own artists

Historians and community residents gathered last week at La Salle University to recall the life and work of Germantown artist Benton Spruance, whose lithographs were an important contribution to Philadelphia’s 20th century art scene.

Nearly 30 people attended a community reception Thursday evening at the university’s art museum, where 23 of his works are on display through March 4 in an exhibit entitled “Benton Spruance: City Views.”

Spruance (1904-1967), who has been called the “urban Thomas Hart Benton,” was introduced to lithography in 1925. Based in his Walnut Lane home, he made lithographs until his death.

His subjects, most of them produced in the 1930s, feature Germantown street scenes and buildings. Others include portrayals of warplanes in a darkened sky, the heavy impact of automobiles and urban streets crowded with workers. Most of the lithographs are on loan to La Salle from the Free Library of Philadelphia.

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Anne Kaplan lived near Spruance in Germantown and came to know him because her husband took one of his printmaking classes. (Two of her late husband Jerome’s lithographs are on display in the La Salle museum.)

She said having the opportunity to view Spruance’s lithographs more than 40 years after his death gave her a sense of “melancholy.”

“It still looks very much the same,” she said of the Germantown Spruance portrayed in his lithographs. “It was just a lovely community.”

The guests gathered in one of the museum’s rooms to view a slide show and discuss the lithographs and his life. Friends recalled his teaching career at the University of the Arts and what is now Arcadia University, as well as his social activism on behalf of art, artists and liberal causes.

Ted Wolf, who has lived in Mt. Airy for the past 53 years, was a classmate of Spruance’s son at Germantown Friends School in the 1930’s, when the artist produced many of the works in the exhibit.

Wolf could not attend the reception due to recent surgery, but in a phone interview remembered how Spruance was able to connect with people of all ages through his art and his personality. Spruance liked to tell stories to children, especially ghost stories around Halloween, said Wolf, who lent a Spruance lithograph to the exhibit.

He said the artist’s lithographs “far transcended” just capturing Germantown.

“People who think of him as only a Germantown lithographer are missing the point,” said Wolf. “It had a universal effect. The fact that he lived here made him Germantown’s artist.”

Luke Harold and Alexandra Murray are writers for Germantown Beat, a news website produced by students at La Salle University.

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