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Blanche Lazzell

Blanche Lazzell: Blanche Lazzell's

Blanche Lazzell's "Sailboat" sold for a record $106,200 at Eldred's 2012 Summer Americana auction

American

1878 - 1956

Blanche Lazzell, who would become one of America’s first abstractionists and a pioneer of the white-line woodblock print, was born in 1878 into a family of pious Methodists living on a small farm in West Virginia near the Monongahela River. She attended a one-room schoolhouse through eighth grade and then enrolled in a seminary at age 15. Around this time she became partially deaf, although the cause of her condition remains unclear.

After graduating from West Virginia University with a degree in fine arts, Lazzell enrolled at the Arts Student League of New York in 1907, studying under William Merritt Chase and others.

She traveled to Europe in 1912 and settled in Paris for nearly a year and a half, taking classes at a number of academies including the Adademie Moderne. Influenced by her Fauvist teachers and the contemporary art she saw throughout the city, Lazzell began incorporating modernist techniques into her work.

Lazzell first traveled to Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1915 and took an outdoor painting class with Charles Hawthorne. The following summer she returned to the seaside artist colony and learned the white-line woodcut technique from Oliver Chaffee.

Arthur Wesley Dow together with Chaffee and other artists spending the winter of 1915 in Provincetown launched this new technique, based on Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, where designs were etched into the surface of a single block of wood. The blocks were individually painted and printed onto paper, and the carved groove used to separate parts of the block formed the white lines. 

Lazzell first experimented with woodblocks more as a hobby than an artistic pursuit, although from the beginning her prints were more abstract and more vividly colorful than those of her contemporaries. Two of her pieces were included in a 1917 Provincetown Art Association exhibit.

Although the colony’s avant garde attitude sharply contrasted with Lazzell’s devout Christianity, she moved there permanently in 1918 and helped form the Provincetown Printers, a collaboration of artists who practiced the white-line technique. Soon thereafter the group began receiving national exposure with featured exhibitions in Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Lazzell studied once again in Paris in 1922, this time with Cubist artists. A little more than a decade later she studied in Provincetown with abstract expressionist Hans Hoffmann. Translating both these movements into her woodblock designs, Lazzell juxtaposed colorful geometric shapes to create some of the first purely abstract prints in American art.

Between 1916 and 1955, Lazzell created 138 woodblocks. She typically used cherry or basswood, and she preferred coloring them with French watercolor pigments. Usually only three or four prints were created from each woodblock for a total of about 550 impressions in her oeuvre. Although she is most well known for these white-line prints and considered them her most valuable contribution, she also pursued painting, pottery and hooked rugs. An avid and accomplished gardener whose window boxes were often the talk of Provincetown, Lazzell frequently featured flowers and landscapes in her work in addition to the harbor and boating scenes for which she is widely known.

Because she used both representational and abstract elements in her prints, Lazzell’s work is often considered a bridge between American modernism and abstraction. Despite her innovating efforts, her work faded somewhat into obscurity following her death from a stroke in 1956. It has regained popularity in current markets, however, and Eldred’s sold a 1931 print “Sail Boat” for a record $106,200 in 2012.

Last updated: November 8, 2012

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