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Printing in P-town: Overlooked Printers Make an Impression at the MFA

In the mid-1910s, several artists in Provincetown began experimenting with a new method of woodblock printmaking. They created a sanctuary for artists outside the mainstream in an era when women were barred from most artistic institutions. In “The Provincetown Printmakers,” nearly fifty of their prints are now on display.

Review by Katherine Schreiber

Prints on display within a glass case and lining a gray wall at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view, “The Provincetown Printmakers,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On view through October 15, 2023. Clementine Brown Gallery. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Provincetown, MA, transformed from a provincial fishing community into a bustling artists’ colony. The town’s first art school opened in 1899, and four others quickly followed suit; soon artists, writers, and other creatives were flocking to the town in droves.

It was in this context that several artists, in the mid-1910s, began experimenting with a new method of woodblock printmaking. Traditional woodblock printing is an arduous process: It involves carving and inking multiple blocks of wood, which are then printed successively to create a final image. The Provincetown Print, as the new method was called, required only a single block of wood, in which different colors were separated by carved lines.

Nearly fifty such prints are currently on display in the show “Provincetown Printmakers” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition focuses on six artists: Ada Gilmore Chaffee, Maud Hunt Squire, Ethel Mars, Mildred McMillen, Juliette Nichols, and B. J. O. Nordfeldt. It also features work by other printmakers, including Blanche Lazzell, one of the group’s founding members and teachers. Of the show’s twelve total artists, only one—Nordfeldt—is a man.

Installation view of "Provincetown Printmakers" at MFA, Boston

Installation view, “The Provincetown Printmakers,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On view through October 15, 2023. Clementine Brown Gallery. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Many of the Provincetown Printers had spent the years before World War I in Europe, knocking about with other artistic American expats. (Mars and Squire, lifelong partners, were part of Gertrude Stein’s circle in Paris.) Their prints show the influence of European modernism: the bright colors of Fauvism, the flat patterns favored by Post-Impressionists like Vuillard and Bonnard. They also draw from the rich tradition of Japanese printmaking, which had gained a following among European artists at the end of the 1800s.

But the Provincetown Printers also made woodblock printing their own. They depicted scenes from everyday life on Cape Cod: clamdiggers and fishermen, dense Provincetown architecture, boatyards and ships. The style of the prints, too, recalls American folk-art traditions as much as the European avant-garde. This is partly due to the materials the Provincetown Printers used: watercolors instead of oil-based inks, spoons instead of a traditional printing press. 

Image of "Christmas Greetings"

Mildred McMillen (American, 1884–1940) and Ada Gilmore Chaffee (American, 1883–1955), Christmas Greetings, 1918. Woodcut. The Leslie and Johanna Garfield Collection—Partial gift of Leslie and Johanna Garfield and Museum purchase with funds from the Charles H. Bayley Picture and Painting Fund and John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Sometimes this DIY quality lends the prints grit and charm. In Squire’s Baiting Up (1921), the subjects—a group of fishermen sitting on a pier—feel solid, real; the rough style seems exactly right for the depiction of people who spend their days catching fish under the sun. Sometimes it is less effective: Chaffee’s pieces, made with brightly colored watercolor washes on damp paper, feel more like folksy illustrations than folk—or fine—art. The exhibition includes a printed Christmas card made jointly by Chaffee and McMillen, who lived together before the former married Provincetown artist Oliver Newberry Chaffee Jr.

Installation view of "Provincetown Printmakers" at MFA, Boston, with three works by Mildred McMillen

Installation view, “The Provincetown Printmakers,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On view through October 15, 2023. Clementine Brown Gallery. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

McMillen’s work stands in sharp contrast to Chaffee’s. McMillen, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then with Mars in Paris, worked mostly in black and white. Her prints combine the rough-hewn feel of the typical Provincetown Print with a simple but nuanced graphic language. One print shows the tightly packed houses of Provincetown; the sharp geometry of the architecture is broken occasionally by human forms—a woman doing laundry, someone in overalls climbing a ladder.

Image of "My Provincetown Studio"

Blanche Lazzell (American, 1878–1956), My Provincetown Studio, 1933. Color woodcut (white‑line). The Leslie and Johanna Garfield Collection—Partial gift of Leslie and Johanna Garfield and Museum purchase with funds from the Charles H. Bayley Picture and Painting Fund and John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Lazzell, too, used architectural geometry to great compositional effect. In My Provincetown Studio (1933), she shows the view of the wharf from her window. The chimneys of the houses divide the picture vertically; a grounded boat, positioned at a slight angle, leads the viewer into the scene. In the background we can see the sea, peppered with sailboats.

Indeed, Lazzell, though not one of the six featured artists, is one of the stars of the show. But Lazzell had her own—well-deserved—show at the MFA in 2002, and “Provincetown Printmakers” isn’t about individual talent so much as the collaborative process itself. In an era when women were barred from most artistic institutions, the Provincetown Printers became an alternative creative community, a sanctuary for artists outside the mainstream. Its innovative, collaborative spirit still survives in Provincetown today.


The Provincetown Printmakers” is on view through October 15, 2023 at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston located at 465 Huntington Ave, Boston.

Katherine Schreiber

Contributor

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