Among the most interesting and appealing prints made in the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century were single-block color woodcuts. They were created by a group of artists who had sought refuge and community in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod. Among these adventurers was Blanche Lazzell (1878-1956), a well-educated and well-traveled young woman who hailed from West Virginia, near the border of Pennsylvania. One of the perennially most overlooked American modernists, Lazzell created some of the first non-objective prints and paintings in the United States.
Lazzell, a late bloomer, was thirty years old in 1908 when she first attended the Art Students League in New York. There she studied with William Merritt Chase, most likely in the same class with Georgia O’Keeffe. In 1915, after spending several years in Paris, she established a studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where several of her Paris friends had relocated during the war. There she studied under American Impressionist Charles W. Hawthorne and with Oliver N. Chaffee, who taught her how to make white-line woodcuts, a novel printing technique invented by Swedish-born American artist B.J.O. Nordfeldt which would become the signature achievement of the so-called Provincetown Printers. Although Nordfeldt developed this technique, based on the style of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock printing, Lazzell unequivocally mastered it and, unlike many of her peers, continued making color woodcuts until her death in 1956.
Reminiscing about her first summer in Provincetown, Lazzell nostalgically recalled, “Hundreds of American artists who had been living in Europe before the first World War flocked to Provincetown. This quaint old seaport town, famous for the first landing place of the Pilgrims, was already an art colony…To be in Provincetown for the first time, in those days, under ordinary conditions was delightful enough, but that summer of 1915, when the whole scene, everything and everybody was new, it was glorious indeed.”
Throughout her career, starting with her earliest sojourn to Paris in 1912, Lazzell remained at the forefront of the artistic avant-garde in both ideas and techniques. Lazzell briefly returned to Paris in 1923-25, where she studied with both Fernand Léger and Albert Gleizes. By 1925, she had mastered the static and shuffled planes of Synthetic Cubism, inflecting them with her own distinctive color palette and graceful sensibility. Her prints and paintings from this time count among the first Cubist abstractions painted in America, alongside those of her contemporary Stuart Davis, who in 1928 arrived in Paris and began his own series of similarly inspired abstractions. Cubism, as Lazzell defined it, was “the organization of flat planes of color, with an interplay of space, instead of perspective,” a style admirably suited to her woodcuts and to the angular patterns of the Provincetown houses, rooftops, and wharves which populate much of her work.
Between 1916 and 1956, Blanche Lazzell made more than 138 woodblocks and countless impressions through a labor intensive, but highly rewarding process. Her preferred medium, the white-line woodcut, utilized deeply incised grooves that made it possible to print several different colors using a single block. After drawing a design directly on the block, Lazzell would carve the compositional lines by hand with a knife. In printing, a sheet of paper was affixed to the top edge of the block and folded back, and as each segment was colored, the paper was returned to the block and printed with pressure applied by a spoon. This process resulted in impressions which were variable and unique, which perfectly suited Lazzell’s sensibility. As she wrote to a friend, “I use perfect freedom as to color and values…I trust to my inspiration at the time I do the print.”
Lazzell was also a passionate gardener who kept an unusual assortment of plants in boxes and barrels at her studio along the Provincetown wharf. It is thus not surprising that the only living things to receive sustained attention in her prints are flowers. Lazzell started making these iconic still lives around 1927, after her second trip to Paris, and continued making them into the 1950s. These botanical still lives, although based on direct observation, were transformed into rhythmic interplays of abstracted shapes and interlocking geometries, elegantly synthesizing the tenets of Cubism with something of Hans Hoffmann’s “push-pull” compositional theory, which she learned from attending his classes in Provincetown beginning in the late-1930s. Lazzell’s progressively flattened and abstracted compositions were nevertheless linked to an observable, palpable reality. For as Lazzell described in her memoirs, “Commercial Street [was] where the gaily colored throng moved constantly. Creative energy was in the air we breathed.”
Like her contemporary Georgia O’Keeffe, Lazzell broke new ground with these abstract representations of the natural world, making her one of the first women artists in America to work in a distinctly modernist mode. Amaryllis (1930), is one such fine example. Here, with an economy of line and a vibrant, yet soft palette, Lazzell produced an image unique for her time and place, demonstrating a skillful synthesis of Cubist geometry with intimate and personalized subject matter. Lazzell was an artist at peace with her environment and once wrote that, “we make our own forms and colors, or are inspired from nature.” Perhaps more than any other member of the Provincetown Printers, she enthusiastically embraced this novel method of making woodcuts, which were filled with details of the charmed life that surrounded her.
Despite spending most of her time in Provincetown, Lazzell still considered West Virginia her home. In the 1930s, she was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration to make a series of color woodblock prints of historical scenes around her hometown, Morgantown, West Virginia. She also continued to spend part of every year in Morgantown, even after settling in Provincetown. In her youth growing up in West Virginia, the state was bustling with the coal industry and contemporary photographers, including Lewis Wickes Hine, who had traveled to West Virginia to document its growing presence.
In West Virginia Coal Works (1949), Lazzell’s fine cutting and meticulous, sensitive printing techniques are again evident, as is the subtle effect of visible woodgrain resulting from the printing process. The main structure depicted here is called a tipple, a facility used in mining to load extracted product for transport, typically into railroad hopper cars. The upward sloping structure at the left is the elevator, which carries coal from the depths of the mineshaft. Lazzell also includes a winding gray path leading from the tipple symbolizing railroad tracks, which transported coal from this region to the entire nation. Despite the primacy of industrial subject matter, Lazzell’s affinity for landscape comes through in this print, which portrays the gentle rolling hills and bare winter trees of the West Virginia landscape, popular motifs in many of Lazzell’s most celebrated works.
In almost every respect, Lazzell upended stereotypical expectations for a farm girl from rural West Virginia. She was doggedly independent yet relied on a community of individuals with shared interests in order to sustain her. As art historian and curator Barbara Stern Shapiro wrote, “In Provincetown Lazzell became an important presence in the community. Her commitment to abstract art was an endorsement for many of her friends and an illustration of her diverse artistic interests. Although in her last years, she worked on many figural drawings, her passion remained the woodcut medium that defined her architectural and floral renderings. The beauty of her prints and jewel-like blocks are testimony to Blanche Lazzell’s high level of productivity and originality.”