Blanche Lazzell’s White Peonies and Red Rose is an exuberant foray into modernism. Realized through a series of mosaic-like color patches, this painting pulsates with the visual energy, simplified forms, and color theories of late nineteenth and early twentieth century modernism. Completed after her first extended stay in Paris and subsequent studies at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in Woodstock, New York, it is one of several similar paintings from this period which demonstrate Lazzell’s shift from a traditional, prescribed aesthetic to a more avant-garde approach.
Lazzell’s path toward modernism began in 1913 during studies with Charles Guérin at the Académie Moderne in Paris. Guérin, a follower of Paul Cézanne, urged his students to paint people and objects as they saw them and not necessarily as those subjects appeared in nature. For Lazzell, this proved to be a liberating maxim. The artist’s exposure to these influences comes together in White Peonies and Red Rose. In the foreground and placed on a tabletop slightly tilted toward the picture plane, a glass filled with liquid rests on a blue and cream saucer. The transparency of the glass and a vase of flowers to its left reveals Lazzell’s impasto brush strokes. The overlapping of these objects and the use of diagonal perspective point to conventional spatial constructs, while the combination of warm and cool colors and the planarity suggest a familiarity with Cézanne. With the eye of an early modernist, Lazzell again breaks with academic convention by defining the flowers with strong blue lines, a technique that references the white-line wood cuts she had begun to explore at that time.
A native of Maidsville, West Virginia, the artist completed her secondary studies at West Virginia Conference Seminary in Buckhannon, graduating in 1898. On the advice of a doctor treating her for pronounced hearing loss, Lazzell traveled to a warmer climate. She spent a semester at the South Carolina Co-Educational Institute in Edgefield and then accepted a teaching position in Ramsey, South Carolina. Wanting to further her education, she enrolled in West Virginia University in Morgantown, majoring in the fine arts between 1901 and 1905. In the fall of 1907, she matriculated at the Art Students League in New York City, where her instructors included Kenyon Cox and William Merritt Chase. In July 1912, she sailed for Europe, settling in Paris. That fall, she immersed herself in the city’s rich cultural milieu: taking classes at the Académie Julian, attending lectures at the Louvre, visiting modern art galleries, and seeing the latest manifestations of modernism at the Salon d'Automne. The transformation in Lazzell’s work that began then was solidified when she lived again in Paris from 1923 to 1924, studying with the pioneers of Cubism: Fernand Léger, André Lhote, and Albert Gleizes. It was under Gleizes’s influence that she painted a number of Cubist oils, several of which were accepted into the Salon d'Automne between 1923 and 1930.
Apart from these Cubist paintings, Lazzell is well known as one of the founding members of the Provincetown Printers, a group that favored the single-block, white-line woodcut. She studied this technique with Oliver N. Chaffee during the summer of 1916 and soon became one of its leading practitioners. She eventually made Provincetown her home, working steadily and offering classes in her studio by the sea. The Depression forced Lazzell to return to Morgantown in 1934. One of two artists from the state of West Virginia employed by the Public Works of Art Project, she completed realistic white-line woodblock prints of local scenes and painted a mural for the courthouse. By 1937, she was back in Provincetown. Drawing lessons taken with Hans Hofmann reignited Lazzell’s passionate and prolific pursuit of abstraction, which she believed to be the ideal means for conveying an “artist’s inner thought—yes, the artist’s very soul.”