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BLANCHE LAZZELL

(1878-1956)

ABSTRACT PRINTMAKER

By Sara Sheppard

Blanche Lazzell was a pioneer in abstract art, best known for mastering the white line color technique. Her love for an independent life led her to pursue a college education, as well as travel extensively throughout Europe and the United States, an uncommon path for women in her era.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHYBlanche Lazzell was born on October 10, 1878 in Maidsville, West Virginia to Cornelius and Mary Prudence Pope Lazzell. She was one of the youngest of twelve children growing up on her family’s farm. Lazzell attended the schoolhouse on her farm, which was called the Lazzell School; this school, like most country schools, had one room for grades one through eight. When her mother died in 1890, the Lazzell family became closer, creating bonds that would last into adulthood (Blanche Lazzell 2-3).

In 1984, Lazzell enrolled in the West Virginia Conference Seminary, a secondary and preparatory school affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church (Blanche Lazzell 4). Blanche’s Christian faith was nourished through this school, and it fulfilled her need for learning. However, she did not take any art classes while at the West Virginia Conference Seminary, and in 1898, she received her liberal arts degree. By the spring of 1899, she had enrolled in the South Carolina Co-educational Institute, graduating within the semester. She took classes in art while attending, but focused her studies on becoming a teacher. After graduating, she took on a teaching position for a year, making her consider a college education. She decided to enroll at the University of West Virginia to study fine art. It was at the University of West Virginia that her passion for art was discovered. She believed it was her calling to become an independent woman artist and received her degree in 1905.

After receiving her degree, Lazzell decided to search for art schools and ended up moving to New York. In 1907 she enrolled in the Arts Student League in New York City and studied under William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Kenyon Cox (1856-1919), Luis Mora (1874-1940), and Augustus V. Tack (1870-1949). Although only studying at the Arts Student League for a year, the time she spent there influenced the direction in which she took her life.

After breaking away from the academic to pursue art, Lazzell decided to travel to Europe. She left during the summer of 1912 with a plan to visit the major cities of Europe. She eventually spent a year studying art in Paris (Blanche Lazzell 15). While in Paris, she studied at the Academie Julian and the Academie Moderne. She returned to West Virginia in 1913 and began exhibiting her work in state fairs. After spending two years in West Virginia, Lazzell moved to an artist colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts and enrolled in the Cape Cod School of Art for the summer. After the summer was over, she returned to West Virginia, however, returning yet again to Provincetown in the summer of 1916. It was during this summer in Provincetown that she learned the white-line woodblock technique from Oliver Chaffe (1881-1944) (Blanche Lazzell 25). In 1918, she moved to Provincetown permanently.

In 1923, Lazzell returned to Europe to study Cubism in Paris. She returned in 1924 to help her sister and her sister’s new child, Noah. This would be her last trip to Paris; however, the time spent there influenced a series of completely abstract paintings in the mid-1920s (Blanche Lazzell 37).

During the Great Depression, Lazzell suffered many personal tragedies. She began under-pricing her art in order to make enough money to survive, and resorted to selling flower seeds from her garden to bring in extra income. The death of a close friend brought more pain into her life. However, Lazzell was devastated when her nephew, Noah, died three weeks after the death of her friend. A year later, her brother Rufus died. Three deaths in the span of a year, along with her financial problems, affected Lazzell’s outlook on life. She applied for the Public Works of Art Project between 1933-1934 and became one of two artists from West Virginia to join. In 1935, she began working for the WPA by making prints and cutting woodblocks for the Federal Art Project (Blanche Lazzell 41-45).

During World War II, Lazzell traveled throughout the United States visiting artist colonies. She began classes with Hans Hoffmann (1880-1966) in Provincetown during the summer of 1937. She began visiting New York City during winters, socializing with friends and visiting museums and galleries. The renewed interest in abstract painting encouraged her to continue her painting and sketching, even at an older age.

After a second stroke in 1956 she was hospitalized, and she died in the hospital on June 1, 1956. She distributed her art, books and other valuables evenly throughout her extensive family in her will, and donated prints and paintings to West Virginia University, the West Virginia Conference Seminary (now the West Virginia Wesleyan College) and Morris Harvey University (now the University of Charleston) (Blanche Lazzell 56).

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

“Our painting is more creative, we make our own forms and colors, or are inspired from nature. In our work, the forms and colors must be so related to make unity, rhythm, balance, ect. A piece of music is a composition of sounds. Our painting is a composition of color.” – Blanche Lazzell

Blanche Lazzell was a pioneer in the art world. She was trained in the traditional American methods of artistic expression; however she developed an abstract style mid-career. Lazzell began her art career while enrolled in West Virginia University, and considered herself a painter throughout her life. She began landscape painting, and found the West Virginia hills an inspiration. It was at West Virginia University that Lazzell learned portrait painting and was commended for her landscapes. At the university, she took courses in drawing and painting in different mediums. She continued in the American method at the Arts Student League in New York, where she took classes in oil, portrait and still life painting.

Blanche Lazzell had always been interested in crafts, but her printmaking abilities led to her reputation as an artist. This technique was probably learned while she studied at West Virginia University; however it was printmaking that showcased the exceptional work of Provincetown artists. “In the United States, Lazzell had already by 1915 had established her studio in the artist’s colony at Provincetown, Massachusetts. Here she rapidly became a leading personality, particularly recognized in the field of color woodblock printmaking” (American Printmakers, 1860-1950 8). Lazzells’ color woodblocks began as a hobby; she learned the white-line woodcut technique and considered it an amusing craft. However, from the beginning Lazzell’s woodblocks were more abstract than other artists in the area and she used vibrant, bright colors. “In Lazzell’s early prints she simplified form, eliminated details, and composed in circular rhythms, infusing her images with life. Her landscapes vibrate with energy, and the flowers of her still lifes seem to dance and sway” (Blanche Lazzell 184). She also had mastered creating a graceful curve to her art, which she learned from painting china. Lazzell completed her woodblocks in Provincetown during the summers, selling art and teaching the technique in her studio. In the 1920’s, her interest in cubism influenced the direction of her woodblocks.

Lazzell’s time in Europe changed her style as an artist. “Whatever her previous feelings about modernism, in 1923 she willingly embraced all that these three artists could teach her about decorative, geometric Cubism. The result was some of the earliest American work in this abstract vein, work that was exhibited at the Paris Salon through the 1930’s” (American Works on Paper III). Lazzell began experimenting with cubism in her paintings during her stay in Paris. Lazzell’s paintings from this period have an overwhelming influence of cubism; geometric shapes overlap various planes on the canvas. It can also been seen in the use of her colors; ice blue tends to seem receding while orange appears to come forward, creating movement within many of her canvases. She continued painting in this style when she returned to the United States, however, she also painted subjects that strayed from the paintings she studied in Europe. Always an avid gardener, Lazzell incorporated cubism into images of flowers. This can be seen in her woodblock print, The White Petunia, from 1954.

Lazzell continued to align herself with European abstraction when she returned to Provincetown. She transferred this style to her woodblocks, creating some of the first purely abstract prints in American art (Blanche Lazzell 189). “These consisted of simple overlapping geometric shapes, superimposed as a series of planes, to create a balanced spatial interplay” (Blanche Lazzell 189).

Although Lazzell was passionate about the modernist art that she produced, she remained open to other styles as well; she was able to use different techniques and mediums to please her audience. She did not study under an artist for more than six months at a time, preferring to not be labeled under one specific style. She worked in many different styles throughout her life, constantly learning new techniques and methods. Lazzell became unsatisfied in her later years as cubism and modernism lost their appeal; however, when new interest was shown towards the end of her life she felt as though she had contributed greatly to the movement. Her meticulous methods of recordkeeping and organization left a commending and documented oeuvre of her work.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1878 Born on October 10th in Maidsville, West Virginia
  • 1897 Seeks treatment for hearing problems
  • 1890 Mary Prudence Pope Lazzell, her mother, dies from a possible stroke
  • 1894 Enrolls in the West Virginia Conference Seminary (now West Virginia Wesleyan College)
  • 1898 Receives liberal arts degree
  • 1899 Enrolls in the South Carolina Co-educational Institute
  • 1901 Enrolls in West Virginia University
  • 1905 Receives degree in art history and fine arts from West Virginia University
  • 1907 Moves to New York
  • 1907 Enrolls in the Arts Student League
  • 1912 Travels throughout Europe, taking classes in Paris at the Academie Julian and Academie Moderne
  • 1913 Returns to West Virginia
  • 1915 Attends the Cape Cod School of Art
  • 1915 Establishes a studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts
  • 1916 Learns the white line color technique from Oliver Chaffee (1881-1944)
  • 1917 Studies under William Shumacher (1870-1931) and Homer Boss (1882-1956)
  • 1923 Studies cubism with Fernand Leger (1881-1955) in Europe
  • 1924 Returns to America
  • 1928 Joins the board of the Société Anonyme
  • 1933 Moves to Morgantown, West Virginia to work for the Public Works of Art Project
  • 1933 Paints mural in a Morgantown court room
  • 1935 Begins working for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration
  • 1935 Uses the technique of white line woodcut for nonobjective abstractions
  • 1937-1938 Studies under Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)
  • 1956 Dies in Morgantown, West Virginia on June 1st
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Detroit Art Institute
  • National Museum of American Art, DC
  • West Virginia University Library
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1917-1923 Society of Independent Artists, NY
  • 1918-1919 Provincetown Printers Group, MA
  • 1919 Touchstone Gallery, NY
  • 1920 Boston Art Club, MA
  • 1922 Salons of America
  • 1923 Salon d’Automne, Paris, France
  • 1924 Berkeley League of Fine Arts, CA
  • 1925-1927 Society of Independent Artists, NY
  • New York Society of Women Artists, NY
  • 1927 Salons of America
  • 1928 Oakland Art Gallery, CA
  • 1930 Rhode Island School of Design, RI
  • 1936 Society of Independent Artists, NY
  • 1936-1937 Museum of Modern Art, NY
  • 1938 Society of Independent Artists, NY
  • 1939 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • 1940-1942 National Academy of Art, NY
  • 1940-1942 Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
  • 1940-1942 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • 1946 Color Print Society
  • 1946 Library of Congress, Washington DC
  • 1944 Ravenscroft Gallery, NY
  • 1946 San Francisco Art Association, CA
  • 1946 Seligmann Gallery, NY
  • 2002 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
  • 2004 Mesaros Gallery, West Virginia University, WV
  • VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club
  • New York Society of Women Artists
  • Provincetown Arts Association
  • Provincetown Printers
  • Société Anonyme
  • Society of Independent Artists
  • WPA/Federal Art Project
  • VII. BIBLIOGRAPHY

    1. 1. American Printmakers, 1860-1950. Chicago: R.S. Johnson Fine Art, 1987.
    2. 2. American Works on Paper III. New York: Spanierman Gallery, 1989.
    3. 3. Blanche Lazzell. The Life and Work of an American Modernist. Ed. Robert Bridges, Kristina Olson, and Janet Snyder. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2004.
    4. 4. "Blanche (Nettie Blanche) Lazzell." AskArt. 8 Nov. 2008 .
    5. 5. Fielding, Mantle. Mantle Fielding’s Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers. Ed. Glenn Opitz. 2nd ed. Poughkeepsie: Apollo, 1986.
    6. 6. Hughes, Edan Milton. Artists in California, 1786-1940. San Francisco: Hughes Pub. Co., 1989.
    7. 7. Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975: 400 years of artists in America. Ed. Peter Hastings Falk. Madison: Sound View Press, 1999.

    VIII. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST


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