Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



Blanche Lazzell and the Advancement of Modernism

by Robert Bridges


Forum 49 held in Provincetown in 1949 was a summer-long series of lectures, panel discussions, and exhibitions. Today, it is viewed as a watershed event that helped propel Abstract Expressionism to the forefront of the artistic avant-garde. During that summer, a special exhibition held at Gallery 200 was billed as a tribute to the pioneering American modernists Oliver Chaffee (1881-1944), Blanche Lazzell (1878-1956), E. Ambrose Webster (1869-1935), and Agnes Weinrich (1873-1946). Of the four artists, Lazzell -- then seventy-one -- was the only one still living. Her commitment to modernism was finally recognized, and she was credited for her years of championing abstract art. Deeply honored but by no means done working, Lazzell would spend her remaining seven years creating a series of hard-edged abstractions. This inclination toward abstraction and experimentation was a lifelong tendency, and her connection to Provincetown and the modernist artists who resided there strengthened her belief in the importance of innovation and the advancement of art.

A native of West Virginia, Lazzell chose to make Provincetown her professional residence-a decision that was as critical to her development as the choice of artists with whom she studied. Relocating her art-making activities there in 1915, after her first period of study in Paris (1912-13), put her in a new axis of modernist activity. All kinds of artists came to study at one of the six schools that made the community among the most important art colonies of the time.[1] Lazzell soon aligned herself with those who were creating more progressive art. Many of her friends had studied in Europe and had participated in the 1913 Armory Show in New York. Chaffee, Karl Knaths (1891-1971), Weinrich, Marguerite (1887-1968) and William Zorach (1887-1966), and Webster had all been in that exhibition and made Provincetown their summer home.

Provincetown -- located on the tip of Cape Cod and surrounded on three sides by water -- encompasses fewer than ten square miles and is less than half the size of Manhattan. In the 1910s the town was densely crowded with artists and aesthetic ideas and philosophies were exchanged with each informal meeting or exhibition. This large population of artists, many of whom had studied in the European modern schools, influenced Lazzell's modernist leanings.

A great example of this environment spawning innovation was the creation of the white-line color woodcut method developed by B. J. O. Nordfeldt and the Provincetown Printers in 1915.[2] The method revolutionized color woodblock printing by eliminating the tedious process of cutting multiple blocks, one for each color, which was the practice with all Japanese woodcuts. In the white-line, or Provincetown, print the complete design was cut in one block. The entire composition could be viewed as the artist developed it. This method allowed Lazzell to simplify her subject matter and to work with flat planes, hard edge geometry, and color relationships, putting the emphasis on composition and color development rather than carving techniques. The process was much more akin to the development of a painting, allowing for working in sections and altering color as the print progressed.

Lazzell came to Provincetown to study with Charles W. Hawthorne (1872-1930) at his famous Cape Cod School of Art but stayed with him for only one season, moving the next summer to the more progressive school led by E. Ambrose Webster. Later that summer, Lazzell asked Chaffee to teach her the white-line method and began tentatively working. Boats and Water of 1917 (fig. 30) is a good example of her early influences and advanced sense of design. The scene is of a series of geometrically simplified beached boats and a wharf near the harbor. The edge of the image and the horizon are the only straight lines in the composition. The artist carefully composed the subject and aligned the curves of the boats with the wharf building and the exaggerated dunes in the background, creating a series of overlapping ovals that frame a small sailboat at center. The purpose of the various compositional elements -- as the lines turn back into the composition -- is creating rotational movement. The deliberate emphasis on parallel landscape elements seems influenced by the work of Paul Cézanne. In an undated script for a talk on modern art, probably written in 1916, Lazzell calls Cézanne "the greatest genius whose work influenced art more than any other man painting." In her explanation of his importance, she continues, "Cézanne felt the structural substance, sensed it as a living spiritual thing. He did not hesitate to distort the object for the sake of the organization as a whole." [3]

Lazzell continued a rigorous schedule of study in the 1910s. In winter 1916-17 she took classes in New York with Homer Boss and William Schumacher, and the following summer she studied color analysis with Schumacher at the Byrdcliffe art colony in Woodstock, New York. Schumacher had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and his color theory was derived from an interest in Post-Impressionism and Georges Seurat. Lazzell's Untitled (Hollyhocks) of 1917 (fig. 31) is composed of small dots and dashes of brightly pigmented paint. The short, disjointed brushstrokes owe much to Schumacher's style and also reveal the two artists' shared affinity for Fauvism. The painting incorporates several of Lazzell's hallmarks, such as the distinctive palette -- deep red, bright blue, pink, and purple -- she would use for most of her career. Like the Fauves, she employed color for expressive purposes, often departing from reality in favor of evoking the essence of a scene. The heavy outlines around the foliage emulate the white line of the color woodcuts, which emphasizes and flattens the bold shapes of the composition. [4] The subject here was a Provincetown yard, with an emphasis on the strong vertical stalks of the hollyhocks, which are punctuated with pink and red flowers and function as a single plane in the foreground. Appearing through this vegetation screen in the upper section of the painting is a series of rooftops that serves to break the composition into triangles.

Lazzell's paintings and prints of the late 1910s underwent a reduction and simplification of imagery, yet the compositions continued to become more complex. In the white-line print Roofs of 1919 (fig. 32), for example, Lazzell built the composition with four distinct layers, from the foreground at the bottom of the image to the background at the top. A group of bright yellow sunflowers sticks up above a gridlike fence at bottom. In the middle ground are houses with prominent roofs that sweep from one upper corner to the other, forming a U-shaped expanse that frames a single tree in multiple circular planes of greens and blues. The bright azure sky, with a slight hint of the vertical wood-grain from the block, forms the background. As in Boats and Water, the artist pushed the rotational movement as she emphasized the curve of the tree foliage by the parallel rooftops. It is important to note Lazzell's use of the roof motif throughout her career, which most likely derived from her interest in Cézanne. The high-keyed color curves and the swirling compositions also show a strong Fauvist influence. Lazzell adapted Fauvism as a point of departure for her innovations, but soon the ideas of Cubism began to dominate. By the end of the decade the strong curved lines in her compositions became increasingly angular. Her handling of the undulating curves of the dunes and tree foliage became more severe, and the compositions began to have more unmodulated passages of color, reading as flat planes.

An example of her early Cubist interest can be seen in the print Torpedo and Studio of 1920 (fig. 33). It is densely packed with imagery composed of brightly colored flat planes. Lazzell played with the perception of space through her use of strong color relationships. The bright blue of the water at center right appears in the rectangle representing a window. This color strategy is also employed with a bright red window and a boat cabin representing different areas of depth. The effect is one that simultaneously pushes those areas forward, flattening the space. In contrast, the torpedo is rendered in stripes in distinct zones of color, creating an illusionistic three-dimensional quality. The buildings or studios at top function like the houses in Roofs, giving the composition rhythmic organization, but the exaggeration emphasizes the lack of depth and the two-dimensional quality of the picture plane. Lazzell exhibited this print at the 1920 Boston Art Club exhibition and noted in her print record book, "Admired by Charles Demuth." Possibly on the strength of that approval, she took this print with her to France on her second trip to Europe (1923-24) and exhibited it at the 1923 Salon d'Automne in Paris. [5]

This analytical approach and flattened space signal a shift in Lazzell's work. A series of paintings created in 1922 seems to be directly based on Georges Braque's (1882-1963) early Cubist landscapes; there is a decreased use of her characteristic color and a stronger concentration on form. In her correspondence from this time, Lazzell even referred to her block prints as "Cubist." Her friend Marguerite Zorach also embraced a Cubist style. Zorach's 1921 black-and-white linoleum cut Interior of Tenth Street (cat. no. 120) is a portrait of a mother with a child and a dog in a city interior. Zoarch suggests a Cubist approach by tilting the picture plane and the heavy patterning, flattening the space. The linocut technique lends itself to simplifying the scene, and the contrasting areas of light and dark help emphasize the movement. This effect has much in common with Lazzell using roofs and the edges of buildings as diagonal compositional elements. After the Armory Show, numerous American artists embraced modernist styles, but by the late 1910s many gradually returned to a more traditional approach.

Lazzell continued to work toward a more abstract image; in order to advance her art, she returned to Europe in 1923, to study and pursue her interest in Cubism. She first toured Italy, spending time in Florence and Siena before returning to Paris to find a school. In November she made a short but important trip to Cassis to sketch and paint. Cassis, a small fishing port in southern France, had a favorable quality of light and was much like Provincetown. It had been a preferred location for the Fauvist painter André Derain (1880-1954), and many other artists from that period visited or painted there. Lazzell focused her studies on the hillside buildings, roofs, and doorways, much in line with subject matter painted by both Braque and Cézanne in L'Estaque just twenty miles to the west. House in Cassis of 1922 (fig. 34) can be read as a fairly naturalistic sketch, probably done in situ. The work seems to have been executed quickly-with major elements of the hillside buildings recorded with line and value-but ended up being of great significance in her development over the next few years.

Once settled in Paris, she began to study with the Cubist artists Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), Ferdinand Léger (1881-1955), and André Lhote (1885-1962). Lazzell's work up to this point had touched on many of the attributes of Cubism, but it did not reach a level of sophistication and visual complexity until after this year in Paris. Lazzell would later single out Gleizes as her most important teacher (she later included Hans Hofmann as well). Gleizes, known as a theoretician, was the co-author, with Jean Metzinger, of Du Cubisme (1912). Whereas Léger and Lhote taught using still lifes and live models, Gleizes had students begin on a non-representational basis. He taught the practice of "translation," which is the use of shapes that relate to the flatness of the canvas and, through overlapping, suggest depth. If the artist then turns the shapes to the left or the right, "rotation" (or movement) is created.[6] The starting point was an abstract series of planes and lines to master a sense of rhythm.[7] Lazzell's studies with Gleizes -- with his stress on the use of the grid and key transitions at measured points -- led her to a more conceptual approach to painting. She adopted the use of pattern, rhythm, and geometry as the means to achieve harmony.

Lazzell completed Painting III of 1925 (fig. 35) in Paris. The composition is made up of a layered sequence of geometric shapes in muted colors with centrally located bright red and blue planes. This arrangement seems to be a group of overlapping arbitrarily shaped layers, but, upon closer inspection, there is evidence of figurative elements -- arched doorways, a roofline, and a black zigzagging line indicating steps -- that are clearly derived from her important drawing House in Cassis. The buildings, windows, and doors merge into this group of flattened zones, with no emphasis on a three-dimensional, illusionistic depth. A series of sketches (Brooklyn Museum of Art) for the painting helps illustrate Lazzell's working process. The early drawings exhibit a rudimentary layering while the later ones have added details taken from Cassis. Lazzell later revisited this image of buildings in Cassis to create a woodblock print of the same name in 1926. Painting III uses these figurative details for their plastic qualities and to provide a structure upon which to build a non-figurative painting. The forms in the composition are reduced to a series of overlapping planes, with the emphasis on the surface and two-dimensional depth, not illusionist perspective.

Gleizes scholar Peter Brooke has pointed out, "Gleizes was not dogmatically attached to the refusal of all figurative imagery, but he insisted that the painting was first and foremost an organization of shapes and colors within a given space. It was these that gave the painting its quality and these that had to be mastered before any representational element could be introduced."[8] In 1925, as Lazzell was returning to the United States, another Gleizes student, the Polish artist Victor Poznansky, organized and financed the "Exposition Internationale l'Art d'Aujourd'hui" in Paris. This exhibition was the first attempt in post-war Europe to present an international survey of avant-garde -- especially non-representational -- painting. The list of participating artists is impressive: Arp, Brancusi, Gris, Léger, Miro, Mondrian, Picasso, and many others. There were six Americans, all living in Paris at the time: Patrick Henry Bruce, Florence Henri, Gerald Murphy, Lucy L'Engle, Ambrose Webster, and Lazzell. The last three were all students of Gleizes's.

This extensive period of study with Gleizes led Lazzell to use the grid and key transitions at measured points and to develop a more conceptual approach to painting. Back in Provincetown in 1925, she continued painting in a non-objective style and created two color wood-block prints based on Gleizes's compositional theories. The graphite studies and paintings Lazzell brought back from Paris were clearly derivative of Gleizes and the Europeans. As she worked in her own studio, however, her compositions slowly became more personalized, as she departed from Gleizes's rigid compositional guidelines. In Painting X of 1927 (fig. 36), for example, Lazzell was still employing compositional ideas provided by Gleizes but had moved away from his strict rules. She presents a less complicated division of space using "translation" and "rotation" but has intensified her color palette and used highly patterned planes. The color combinations and movement are the predominate forces working in the composition. As Lazzell began to break with rigid observance of Gleizes's theories, she and other Provincetown "moderns" were translating from French to English both Gleizes's and Gino Severini's texts on Cubism. These American artists were carefully examining reproductions of masterworks to analyze them in terms of the golden section (the Greek mathematical formulas for the calculation of proportional perfection) and "mathematics." Lazzell's non-objective paintings and notes at this time seem to have more in common with Severini's teaching than Gleizes's, yet they were distinctly her own. [9]

Gleizes used some degree of measurement, but in a statement from about the time Lazzell worked with him he explained his thoughts on the use of the golden section: "A work of art must combine these numbers with other, less precise elements which destroy the possibility of measure. These elements cannot be controlled because they are of the nature of love."[10] Even though Lazzell was moving away from a formulaic approach to her work, she was still concerned that her paintings were "too coldly mathematical" and strove to get "more feeling into them." [11]

In 1927 a small but vocal group of "modern" artists pushed for four "progressive" painters to be added to the jury for the Provincetown Art Association's annual exhibition. It was decided to add a separate exhibition instead, and Lazzell was asked to serve as one of the jurors for "The First Modernistic Exhibition."[12] In a letter to her sister from that April, Lazzell explained, "I do hope it will be a great success. Mine and Mrs. L'Engle's will be the only cubist ones there, that we know, so we want to do our level best."[13] The traditional and the modern exhibitions continued at the Art Association until 1937, when they returned to one annual exhibition. [14]

As Lazzell continued her series of "Cubist" works, she also painted more representational still lifes. The sequential paintings from the late 1920s slowly began to merge her two very different styles. In an early painting in the series, Still Life of 1927 (fig. 37), the image is clearly a modern representational still life in the foreground with stylized, abstract geometric shapes in the background. The painted batik cloth serves as a device to break up the space. The floral still life, however, is composed of stylized poppies made with a simplified shape for each flower and an object set to the left that has been abstracted to the point of being unrecognizable. In a letter to her sister, Lazzell states, "When we moderns paint a realistic object we get beneath the surface and give you the very spiritual substance of it." [15]

Lazzell continued her transformation in an untitled still life of 1929 (fig. 38) in which the picture plane is broken up into a series of rectangular bars. The foreground includes a vase of flowers on a square white plate with a single orange, all rendered in rich dark tones with minimal shading. Once again the artist removed details of the individual flowers and, in the spatially shallow background, created a Cubist abstraction of the image in the foreground, almost as if it were a shadow or an abstracted reflection. In an interview that year, Lazzell explained a recently finished painting: "This is a series of different planes, one placed against the other to bring about an interplay. It is a matter of space relations not perspective." She continued, "Not until the aesthetic is combined with the intellectual will real art be produced."[16] The late 1920s were an incredibly productive time for Lazzell. She created paintings and some of her most visually striking woodblock prints, which were in great demand at the time. She exhibited at venues from New York to Los Angeles and was included in several major American museum and international exhibitions.

The shift and ultimate leap Lazzell made to her breakthrough work can be observed in four of her most compelling paintings. Shell of 1930 (cat. no. 66) is pivotal. Here, she successfully integrated a Cubist composition with a still life by applying the Cubist compositional principles of movement, rhythm, and asymmetrical space with a more personal statement, using flowers from her garden and a shell collected from a nearby Provincetown beach. The work reveals her interest in applying formal, mathematically established proportions to create a carefully controlled composition. She employs rich color to create spatial depth, which she counters with patterning on planes to flatten and emphasize the two-dimensional quality of the picture. The representational images hover on the edge of pure abstraction. It is with Shell that Lazzell broke free of Gleizes and imitative European modernism and came into her own. The artist would use the principles of this successful canvas to create some of her most important paintings and her strongest white-line prints.

The White Petunia of 1932 (cat. no. 67), produced shortly after Shell, is one of Lazzell most successful white-line compositions. The image depicts a bouquet of flowers in a pitcher composed of densely packed planes. The artist interwove these colorful geometric zones with those representing flower petals, combining all regardless of their natural location within the still life. The bright red and yellow flowers push forward as the darker red and black ones recede in the implied space, opening up the composition. The multicolored planes provide a sense of rhythm and the cut white lines carefully align, creating rotation and movement. Lazzell meticulously planned all her compositions, making multiple sketches, and carefully considered her color choices, but her finished prints always reveal a spontaneity and freshness.

The Provincetown art community in the 1910s and 1920s was a microcosm of the American art world, with the split between "moderns" and "conservatives" at the Provincetown Art Association. It took daring and independence for Lazzell to create abstract work at this time in America. Aside from a small but serious group of modernist artists in Provincetown, there was very little praise and even less financial benefit for her.


1. For a discussion of Provincetown art schools, see Richard Boyle, "Charles W. Hawthorne and the Provincetown Artist Colony, 1899-1930," in From Hawthorne to Hofmann Provincetown Vignettes, 1899-1945 (New York: Hollis Taggart Galleries, 2003).

2. The printers who worked with Nordfeldt in winter 1915-16 were Ada Gilmore, Ethel Mars, Mildred McMillen, Juliette Nichols, and Maud Hunt Squire. For a more complete study of the white-line print, see Janet Altic Flint, Provincetown Printers: A Woodcut Tradition (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1983); and David Acton, "The Provincetown Print," in Robert Bridges,_Kristina Olson, and_Janet Snyder, eds., Blanche Lazzell: The Life and Work of an American Modernist (Morgantown, W.V.: West Virginia University Press, 2004), pp. 169-205.

3. Blanche Lazzell, personal notes, Morgantown, W.V., December 15, 1916, Lazzell Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., microfilm, reel 2989. This file of notes is a rough draft, which includes the line at the bottom of the last page: "For Hagaus Chapter D.A.R." Lazzell evidentially was preparing for a presentation about modern art to the Daughters of the American Revolution.

4. It is interesting to note that Schumacher was very taken with Lazzell's white-line prints. In a letter to her sister, Lazzell states: "I did a print yesterday afternoon and as soon as dinner was over Mr. S asked to see it. I came to my room and took it with two others down for him to see, and right there he gave me as much criticism as Hawthorne gave us in a week." Blanche Lazzell, Woodstock, N.Y., to Bessie Ridgway, Morgantown, W.V., July 7, 1917, Lazzell Papers, reel 2989.

5. Special Collections of the Archibald S. Alexander Library at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. On the same page in her record book, after the entry for the exhibition at the Women's Club of Paris 1924, she writes "Admired by Albert Gleizes."

6. Peter Brooke, "Studying with Albert Gleizes in 1924," in Bridges, Olson, and Snyder, eds., Blanche Lazzell, pp. 207-27.

7. Brooke to author, email, January 2011.

8. Ibid.

9. See Brooke, "Studying with Albert Gleizes in 1924," p. 220, n. 5.

10. Albert Gleizes: "Ver une époque de bâtisseurs, pt. iv," in Clarté 22, June 26, 1920, as quoted in Peter Brooke, Albert Gleizes: For and Against the Twentieth Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 69.

11. Boston Sunday Post, July 7, 1929.

12. Ross Moffett (Art in Narrow Streets: The First Thirty-Three Years of the Provincetown Art Association, 1914­1947 [Falmouth: Kendall Printing Co., 1964], p. 51) singles out Lazzell for showing non-objective paintings in the Provincetown Art Association annual members exhibition of 1927 (Painting VIII, Painting IX, and Painting X). However, the non-objective Painting VI, 1925, was included in the prior year's exhibition. Painting VI may have been a touchstone work that led to the division between the two factions. (See PAAM exhibition records courtesy of Stephen Borkowski.)

13. Blanche Lazzell, Provincetown, to Bessie Ridgway, Morgantown, W.V., April 27, 1927, Lazzell Papers, reel 2989.

14. Ross Moffett, Art in Narrow Streets, p. 46.

15. Lazzell to Ridgway.

16. Boston Sunday Post, July 7, 1929.


About the author

Robert Bridges is Curator, The Art Museum of West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia.


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on August 15, 2011.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Alexander J. Noelle, Assistant Curator, and Claudia Thesing, Director of Development, of the New Britain Museum of American Art for their help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.

RL readers may also enjoy biographical information on selected artists cited in this article in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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