Born near Maidsville, West Virginia, Blanche Lazzell enrolled at the West Virginia Conference Seminary (now West Virginia Wesleyan College) in 1894. After attending South Carolina Co-Educational Institute in Edgefield in 1899, she studied art at West Virginia University, receiving a degree in art history and the fine arts in 1905. She moved to New York in 1907 and enrolled at the Art Students League, where she studied with William Merritt Chase and alongside Georgia O’Keeffe. Lazzell traveled throughout Europe in 1912 and took classes in Paris at the Academie Julian and the Academie Moderne headed by Charles Guerin and Charles Rosen. By 1913, Lazzell had returned to West Virginia and opened a school. In 1915 she attended the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which had become a meeting place for artists returning from Europe to escape the chaos of World War I. In 1916 Lazzell and several other artists exhibited their work in color woodblock at the studio of E. Ambrose Webster. With the success of this show, the Provincetown Printers Group became the first color-woodblock society to be established. During a trip to Europe in 1923, Lazzell studied cubism with Fernand Leger and also received instruction from Andre Lhote and Albert Gleizes. She returned to America in 1924, and from 1937 to 1938 studied with the abstract artist Hans Hofmann.
Joann Moser Singular Impressions: The Monotype in America (Washington, D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1997)
Throughout her long career Blanche Lazzell remained open to new experiences and ideas. Her early work in Paris between 1912 and 1914 had introduced her to the more radical European movements. By 1925, following two years of study with Albert Leon Gleizes, Andre Lhote, and Fernand Leger in Paris, she had become fully committed to a decorative, geometric cubism. Cubism, as Lazzell defined it, “the organization of flat planes of color, with an interplay of space, instead of perspective,” was admirably suited to her woodcuts and to the angular patterns of the Provincetown houses, rooftops, and wharves that dominated much of her work. Lazzell was a passionate gardener, and flower images occurred repeatedly in her work. Even these images, although based on direct observation, were transformed into rhythmic interplays of abstracted shapes. Her mastery of the complexities of the cubist aesthetic is perhaps best represented in a remarkable group of block prints made in 1925, which are among the earliest nonrepresentational prints created in the United States.
For more than forty years Blanche Lazzell passed almost every summer, and many winters as well, in Provincetown. There she entertained visitors in her quaint wharf studio, displaying her work and demonstrating the techniques of wood-block cutting and printing. Her “Color Wood Block Printing,” a course “of five or more private lessons $5 per lesson,” attracted numerous students, many of whom continued to work in the medium throughout their careers. George Ault, Mary Mullineux, Hope Voorhees Pfeiffer, Elizabeth Shuff Taylor, and Grace Martin Taylor are only a few of the artists who benefited from her tutelage and example.
Between 1916 and 1956 Lazzell created more than 138 blocks and countless impressions through a process that seems to have held a continual fascination for her. Her block prints were technically distinguished by fine cutting and meticulous, sensitive printing. The cutting was made almost exclusively by knife, following a design drawn directly on the block. In printing, a sheet of paper, usually oriental, was affixed to the top edge of the block and folded back, away from the cut image. As each segment was colored, the paper was returned to the block and printed with pressure from the bowl of a spoon. If the pressure were increased, the paper was forced more deeply into the cut grooves, producing an embossed white line. Watercolors were used for printing (French watercolors were preferred), and Chinese white was occasionally added for opaque pastel tones.
Lazzell was never concerned about producing exact duplicates of her prints or even consistent editions of them. Rather, as she wrote to Katharine McCormick, “I use perfect freedom as to color and values. I trust to my inspiration at the time I do the print.” She continued, “I give myself one week to the making of one print. It is not a paying business as far as price is concerned. I do them because I like to.”
Janet Altic Flint Provincetown Printers: A Woodcut Tradition (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1983)