The Old Print Shop

Blanche Lazzell


A remarkably talented, versatile, and innovative artist, Blanche Lazzell experimented with Post-Impressionism, Pointillism, Cubism, and abstraction in her paintings and prints, and was among the earliest modernists in the United States. She also used her creative gifts to make textiles and learned the craft of china painting. Her boldly designed and lushly painted oils and her vibrantly colored and exquisitely executed color woodblocks helped establish her fame as a creative force in modern American art during the first decades of the twentieth century.  

Blanche Lazzell was a highly-educated and well-traveled painter whose works have found many admirers among critics and collectors alike. Born near Maidsville, West Virginia, she entered the West Virginia Conference Seminary (now West Virginia Wesleyan College) at the age of 15, studied for a semester at the South Carolina Co-Educational Institute in Edgefield in 1899, and matriculated from West Virginia University in 1905 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in fine arts.  In 1907, she moved to New York to continue her training in art under William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League, where one of her fellow students was Georgia O’Keeffe.  After the death of her father in March 1908, she returned home and took more art classes at West Virginia University.  

Like most Americans of her generation, Lazzell felt the need to study and travel abroad and left for Europe in July 1912 for a year-and-a half sojourn.  After visiting several capital cities, she settled in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris and began taking classes at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière, the Académie Julian, and the Académie Delécluse.  In January 1913, she enrolled in the Académie Moderne, a school recommended to her by a fellow American painter, William E. Schumacher, who had a studio in Paris which Lazzell had visited.  As its name suggests, the Moderne differed from other art academies in its association with the more advanced art movements in Paris.  Among its faculty were Fauve painters, Othon Friesz and Albert Marquet, and the landscape paintings of Paul Cézanne were used for instruction in the studios.  Lazzell preferred the Moderne to the other schools, writing “I like it very much at the Moderne and feel that I am at last in my element.” She also explored the contemporary art galleries that dotted the city. Lazzell responded positively to the recent vanguard art movements and began incorporating the language of modernism into her own paintings. She also attended lectures on Italian Renaissance, Dutch, and Flemish art at the Louvre to further her artistic education. 

In the summer of 1915, Lazzell moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, which would eventually become her permanent home.  In Provincetown, a veritable crucible of modernist activity, she became an integral part of the area’s art scene for more than 40 years.  She attended classes with Charles Hawthorne at the Cape Cod School of Art and studied print-making with Oliver N. Chaffee. She became known as an exponent of the “Provincetown print,” a method of wood-block printing that used one block for all the colors, with a white incised line that contoured the forms that prevented colors from running into one another. In 1918 Lazzell participated in the show of the Provincetown Printers, the first woodblock print society formed in the United States. Thereafter, she participated in several important exhibitions of American printmakers’ work including the landmark show at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1919. 

Through her preference for abstract design, she was one of the first women artists to introduce modern art into America.  Her career was devoted to understanding and promoting the theoretical underpinnings of the modernist aesthetic. Through her art, her teaching, and her associations with other artists, Lazzell translated the achievements of the European modernists for her colleagues in America. 

Relentlessly experimental and open-minded, Lazzell explored a variety of new techniques and media—such as hand-hooked wool rug design, painted china, quatrefoil plaster reliefs, and even batiked fabrics.  Throughout her career, she showed a thirst for learning and continued to refresh her ideas.  In the summer 1937, at nearly sixty years old, she studied drawing under Hans Hofmann for six weeks, seeking to hone her approach to abstract composition.  During the lean Depression years, she produced paintings and prints, many of which depicted the landscapes of her hometown in West Virginia for the Works Progress Administration of Massachusetts, (although later she would renounce the Federal Arts Program, and in particular, her home state’s lack of participation in the project.) 

Oil paintings by Lazzell are often rare, particularly because after her death in Massachusetts in 1956, the works were returned to her family in West Virginia and remained out of the public eye for many years.  Recent discoveries, retrospective exhibitions, and restoration have brought to light Lazzell’ s abstract paintings, helping scholars to establish the artist’s importance in chronicles of the early adoption of abstraction in the United States.  Her works appear in numerous public collections including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; the Amon Carter Museum, Texas; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Newark Museum, New Jersey; the Provincetown Art Association and Museum; the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts; and the Whitney Museum of American Art.