Although Esma Lucile Lundquist Blanch was a Midwesterner by birth and education, she had significant ties to the South as a teacher and New Deal muralist. Despite her “small town” origins, Lucile managed to forge important ties to leading artists and organizations of her time, leaving a lasting impression in her art. She was a determined woman, dedicated to making some form of art every day, well into her last decade of life.

Lucile was a native of Hawley, Minnesota, a small town surrounded by farmland on the northwest border of the state. She studied painting and lithography at the Minneapolis School of Art from 1916–1918 (now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design), and also obtained a full scholarship to attend the Art Students League in New York where she met her future husband, Arnold Blanch, known for his lithography expertise. After her 1922 marriage to Blanch, a fellow Minnesotan, the couple moved to Woodstock, New York, a noted art colony with ties to the Art Students League and fellow artists Birge Harrison and Alfred Hutty. To support themselves the Blanches ran a small cafeteria, painted lampshades, and sold woven artworks. In the early 1930s they spent time in San Francisco and became friendly with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who was painting a series of murals there.

In 1933 both Lucile and Arnold received Guggenheim fellowships and with that funding they spent time abroad, studying in Germany and France. Returning to the states and to teaching, respectively, the two divorced in 1939. Lucile often taught at women’s colleges, particularly in the South, where hiring female instructors was not only appropriate, but also less expensive for the institution. In 1936, according to the city directory, she was living in Sarasota where she was an instructor at the Ringling School of Art. Her Woodstock Times obituary states that during the academic year 1936–1937 she held a position at Sarah Lawrence College, in Yonkers, New York, and she did summer teaching at the University of Iowa. Blanch then returned South and was artist-in-residence at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, from 1938 to 1941. Leaving there, she became assistant professor of art at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, until around 1955. She was also employed by nearby Mercer University as an artist-in-residence for a short period in late 1975. Later, she went back North and renewed ties with the Woodstock art colony, ultimately spending her last years living there. Despite her teaching responsibilities, Blanch continued to have her work accepted in the major annual exhibitions of the day.

Blanch was awarded multiple mural commissions, all in the South, by the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, a New Deal program. In 1938 Blanch painted Osceola Holding Informal Council with His Chiefs in Fort Pierce, Florida. The mural is now on display at Fort Piece City Hall. In 1940, for the post office in Appalachia, Virginia, titled Appalachia, her intention was to draw attention to the setting of the town, not its industry, “that there is at least this beauty in their lives.” Rural Mississippi from Early Days to Present, commissioned for the post office in Tylertown, Mississippi, was completed in 1941 just as the program was winding down. Undaunted, Blanch went on to paint several more murals in Mississippi, Kentucky (Crossing to the Battle of Blue Licks), and Georgia, respectively. Mural commissions were open to all artists across the United States and more than 850 artists participated in the call—of which only 162 were women. The four titled works listed above are still on view today. 

During this same time period, Blanch painted in a brightly colorful representational style. Her subject matter was broad, embracing still lifes, landscapes, and figures—much of which was taken from observation of her natural surroundings. In her etchings and lithographs she was inclined to be satirical, particularly in a series of prints where her theme was the circus, pulled from memories of her childhood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Corcoran Gallery (now the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design) collected her works in this style. In the late 1930s she became a member of the American Artists’ Congress, an organization of artists united in their opposition to fascism. She furthered her political stance with membership in An American Group, Inc., a cooperative non-profit group of exhibiting artists, with fellow members William Gropper and Warren Wheelock. An exhibition announcement for the purpose of raising housing awareness in 1938 claimed, “the works presented will be of distinct cultural value and will demonstrate the fact that artists are responsive to the pressing problems of our time.”

Around 1950 she shifted gears and experimented with abstraction; this work generally consisted of geometric shapes and slashing brushstrokes done as paintings as well as lithographs. Although works from this period were not as well-received as her more traditional oeuvre, a newspaper article on a retrospective exhibition of her work in 1971 gave her life’s work much praise, further quoting that art critics “acclaimed her as ‘one of the most important women artists of the U.S.,’ basing their sentiment on a career that covers what is close to the ‘whole area of artistic development in this country.’”