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Thursday, 1 October 2009

Joseph Stella (1877–1946)


Flowers, Italy, 1931, Phoenix Art Museum.  

An Italian-born member of the American avant-garde, Joseph Stella became famous for radiant, Futurist-influenced paintings of New York and particularly the Brooklyn Bridge

By Alexandra A. Jopp

-->Joseph Stella is an elusive figure in the history of American art. His unpredictable, almost capricious nature was shaped by idiosyncratic cultures of East and West. His art is like his personality––contradictory, intense, and ambiguous. It is an immense kaleidoscope, with everything in it fantastic, hyperbolic, joyful. He was consumed by turbulent enthusiasm and joyous visions, but he was saddened by everyday routine, and he searched all his life for “peace, serenity, and transcendence of the mundane, the superficial and the ephemeral.”1 Taking a particular interest in Futurism, he developed a remarkable skill for drawing, and his work contrasted sharply with the style of his contemporaries. The intensity of his images, both in color and design, is sometimes interpreted as a reflection of his consciousness, as the pictures draw a fine line between bliss and sorrow.
Apotheosis of the Rose (1928)

Joseph Stella was born Giuseppe Michele Stella on June 13, 1877, to Michele and Vincenza Cerone in Muro Lucano, a mountain village not far from Naples, Italy. He was the fourth of five brothers and was called “Beppino,” a family nickname, until his thirties. In 1896, he joined his brother Antonio, a doctor who two years earlier set up his medical practice in lower Manhattan’s Little Italy, in New York City. Though Stella initially studied medicine and pharmacology, his passion was art. It was his “hopeless love,” the “eternal fountain of heavenly joy” which existed as “a secret delight” designed for “the consummate pleasures of his sense.”2 After a year of medical school, he decided to devote himself to his true calling.

Neapolitan Song (1926), by Joseph Stella Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Photo: Human Flower Project

Stella’s formal training began with a few months at the Art Students League, which he left in 1898 because they would not allow him to focus on drawing the flowers he preferred to figures. He then enrolled for three years at the New York School of Art (now Parsons, the New School for Design), where he studied until 1901 with William Merritt Chase. Chase considered the floral still life to be not just an admirable theme but also the most complex form of still life. Under Chase’s guidance, Stella became proficient in emulating his mentor’s style of swiftly applied brushstrokes. Chase called his student the “American Manet” and said that one of his portrait studies was the equivalent of the French master.

The Red Hat, 1924

Stella’s first exhibited work was a portrait of a poor old man in the Bowery, a study in blacks that was hung in the Vanderbilt Gallery in New York. He drew for several periodicals, including Century Magazine, Everybody’s Magazine, and Outlook, and under Impressionist influence he produced several scenes of immigrants being processed at the Barge Office. In 1902, he was sent by The Survey to Pittsburgh, where he drew steel mill workers and miners. “I was greatly impressed by Pittsburgh,” Stella would write in 1946. “It was a real revelation.”3

Stella’s artistic skills grew rapidly in 1911 when he went to Paris, la ville lumière, the center of avant-garde art. He attended the first exhibition of Italian Futurist paintings at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1912 before returning to New York in time for the prestigious Armory Show of 1913, which included two of his still lifes. Soon afterwards, Stella produced his first grand Futurist painting, Battle of Lights, Mardi Gras, Coney Island (1913–14; Yale University Art Gallery), a colorful and swirling interpretation of Brooklyn’s famous amusement park. It is a large, multifaceted, conceptual work that was among the first and only American paintings to display an understanding of the Italian Modernist style. Stella’s own description of the painting reflects the Futurist aesthetic that the artist observed at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune: “I built the most intense dynamic arabesque that I could imagine in order to convey in a hectic mood the surging crowd and the revolving machines generating for the first time … violent, dangerous pleasures.”4

Throughout the next decade, Stella created romantic, partially abstract, interpretations of parts of New York, in particular the Brooklyn Bridge, which he viewed as the quintessence of American culture. In addition, he painted colorful, purely abstract works, and he never lost his love of painting flowers, looking to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian and Flemish painters for inspiration. By 1916, Stella had begun to produce stylistically diverse paintings of nature and symbolic abstractions infused with his own interpretation and symbolism. The pastel Nativity (1917–18, Whitney Museum of American Art) and watercolor Spring are beautiful examples. In 1919, Stella began the silverpoint and wax-crayon sketches of flowers, vegetables, butterflies, and birds that would captivate him for the rest of his career.
The Nativity, 1917.  
In 1919–20, Stella painted two of his most important works, Brooklyn Bridge (Yale University Art Gallery, )and The Tree of My Life (private collection), which was sold at Christie’s in 1986 for $2.2 million, a record price for the artist at the time.5

 In the Jungle, 1940
Joseph Stella was a leading figure in the origins of American Modernism. Working with a variety of themes and a range of styles, his works could be exceedingly romantic and dazzlingly colored. He produced remarkable paintings and developed his own style in which joyous, pensive subject matter was of foremost value.

The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme, 1939 

1. Barbara Rose, Joseph Stella: Flora (West Palm Beach: Eaton Fine Art, Inc., 1997), p. 7.
2. Barbara Haskell,Joseph Stella (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994), p. 11.
3.Ibid., p. 212.
4. Jane Glaubinger, “Two Drawings by Joseph Stella.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 70, no. 10. (1983): 384.
5. “Joseph Stella’s ‘Tree’ Sells for a Record Price.” The New York Times 1986.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing these. Very helpful in preparing a powerpoint.