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Artists Joseph Stella
Joseph Stella Photo

Joseph Stella

American Painter

Movements and Styles: Italian Futurism, Precisionism, Early American Modernism

Born: June 13, 1877 - Muro Lucano, Italy

Died: November 5, 1946 - Queens, NY

Joseph Stella Timeline

Quotes

"I have seen the future and it is good. We will wipe away the religions of old and start anew."
Joseph Stella
"At my arrival [in Paris], Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism were in full swing. There was in the air the glamour of a battle, the holy battle raging for the assertion of a new truth. My youth plunged full in it."
Joseph Stella
"I was thrilled to find America so rich with so many new motives to be translated into a new art. Steel and electricity had created a new world. A new drama had surged from the unmerciful violation of darkness at night, by the violent blaze of electricity and a new polyphony was ringing all around with the scintillating, highly colored lights."
Joseph Stella
"During the last years of the war I went to live in Brooklyn in the most forlorn region of the oceanic tragic city, in Williamsburg, near the bridge. Brooklyn gave me a sense of liberation. The vast view of her sky, in opposition to the narrow one of New York, was a relief - and at night, in her solitude, I used to find, intact, the green freedom of my own self."
Joseph Stella
"I had witnessed the growth and expansion of New York proceeding parallel to the development of my own life... and therefore I was feeling entitled to interpret the titanic efforts, the conquests already obtained by the imperial city in order to become what now She is, the center of the world."
Joseph Stella

"I was thrilled to find America so rich with so many new motives to be translated into a new art. Steel and electricity had created a new world. "

Joseph Stella Signature

Synopsis

Joseph Stella's professional career left a lasting mark on American modernism, but it was just as fraught and unsteady as his personal life. Following the hugely influencial 1913 Armory Show, he became a key figure in the New York art world. His style and subject matter changed frequently throughout his career, reflecting his own search for meaning and identity as an immigrant working in a rapidly changing urban America. Perhaps because of his outsider status, his images of industrial America were his most successful and influential. Indeed, his images of New York City landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge are depicted with the power and honesty only truly possible from a truly dynamic mind.

Key Ideas

Although famous for his depictions of American scenes, Stella was never fully at home in his adopted country. Indeed, he spent long spells travelling and working in Europe, only returning to New York when necessary.
Stella was largely responsible for bringing Futurism to the United States, and was a leading figure in the burgeoning Precisionist movement of the 1920s and 1930s. While the subjects and even the style of his work varied, he maintained a Precisionist interest in distinct areas of line and color throughout the duration of his career.
In spite of his very modernist interests, the influence of historical European art movements is ever-present in Stella's work, from the stained glass quality of his paintings, to the references to Renaissance and Gothic architecture and altarpieces. His Italian artistic heritage informed his works throughout the course of his career.

Most Important Art

Joseph Stella Famous Art

By-Products Plants (1923-26)

In this painting, Stella depicts factories that extract ammonia, tar, and light oils that are released when coal is burned. Such mechanical processes fascinated Stella, and he once recalled, "Opposite my studio was a huge factory . . . towering with the gloom of a prison. At night fires gave to innumerable windows menacing blazing looks of demons." Imposing, shadowy buildings, tanks, and chimneys are interspersed with radiant, intersecting beams of light, a contrast that gives the painting an eerie, mysterious quality that hints at the complex chemical processes occurring within the factories. There is a captivating hint of danger that is intriguing but also oddly beautiful. The shining spotlights give a sense of expectation of something wondrous occurring - such as the announcement of new product release or a movie presentation.

The painting is a representative example of the Precisionist movement, which celebrated the industrial, modern landscape of the United States through geometric, Cubist-inspired depictions of factories, bridges, and skyscrapers. Before the early twentieth century such industrial and utilitarian structures were not typical subjects for artists, but, with the help of artists like Stella, industrial architecture became a powerful symbol of the distinct textures of American life for many artists. At the same time, the composition's bold, bright colors, sense of movement, and contrast between light and shadow reveal Stella's debt to the Futurists.
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Joseph Stella Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Stella grew up in the small mountain village of Muro Lucano, situated over a ravine in the Potenza province of southern Italy, near Naples. The fourth of five brothers, he was a pudgy, solitary, and contemplative child, with few friends his own age. His father and grandfather were attorneys, and their family was prosperous, though Stella showed little interest in pursuing the family vocation. From a young age, he showed a precocious talent for drawing and developed a passionate interest in art. He was also a strong student in school, where he learned both English and French.

When he was nineteen years old, he moved to New York City to study medicine and pharmacology. Upon arriving at Ellis Island, Stella adopted the Americanized version of his name. Thus, Giuseppe Michele Stella became Joseph Stella. His family would continue to call him by his childhood nickname, "Beppino," for years.

Early Training

Joseph Stella Biography

After studying in New York for two years, Stella abandoned his plans to become a doctor. While studying medicine, he had taken a course on antiques at the Art Students League, which inspired him to transfer to the New York School of Art. There, he studied under William Merritt Chase, the American impressionist painter who would later found the Chase School (now the Parsons School of Design). Another of Stella's teachers was the leading Ashcan School painter Robert Henri, who asserted that no subject was too mundane for art. He inspired Stella to turn to the city's immigrant population for inspiration, and to become an advocate for the just treatment of his fellow immigrants. In 1902, Stella married Mary French. Their marriage was fraught: they lived apart for extended periods of time and Stella had several mistresses over the years.

After completing his studies, Stella worked as a magazine illustrator from 1905 to 1909, focusing mainly on realist drawing. During this time, he made several drawings of immigrants and miners for the magazines Outlook and Survey. He was also developing his skills as a painter, and his painting The Old Man earned praise at a 1906 exhibition at the Society of American Artists in New York.

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Joseph Stella Biography Continues

In 1909, Stella returned to Europe, spending a year in his native Italy, visiting Rome, Florence, Naples, and his hometown of Muro Lucano. He then traveled to Paris, where he met a number of Italian Futurist artists, including Gino Severini, Carlo Carra, and Umberto Boccioni. He also became acquainted with the painters Matisse and Picasso, as well as the influential American writer Gertrude Stein. Stella later spoke of Stein as an aloof, pretentious figure, "enthroned on a sofa in the middle of the room." His trip to Europe left a lasting imprint on him as the Futurist and Cubist commitment to modern life - as opposed to nostalgia for the past - resonated deeply.

In 1912, he returned to New York, where he began his first major work in the Futurist vein, Battle of Lights, Mardi Gras, Coney Island (1913). He also participated in New York's watershed Armory Show of 1913, the first major exhibition of modern art in America, which introduced him to Marcel Duchamp, Albert Gleizes, Alfred Stieglitz, and the prominent modern art collector Walter Arensberg. He became friends with Stieglitz and later with his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe. Stella became firmly entrenched in the avant garde of early-twentieth-century New York. He was even associated with Duchamp's seminal Fountain (1917), the spark of inspiration for which reportedly came from a conversation with Stella and Arensberg. Stella is said to have accompanied Duchamp to the plumbing supply store to purchase the urinal used in the infamous sculpture. Arensberg regularly hosted salons with prominent New York artists, which the wife of the painter Francis Picabia once described "as an inconceivable orgy of sexuality, jazz, and alcohol."

Mature Period

Joseph Stella Photo

Stella's Futurist work continued to attract comment and attention from influential members of the New York art world. By the 1920s he had become fascinated with the geometric architectural qualities of Lower Manhattan, and the city's urban landscape became the subject of some of his best-known works, which blended elements of Futurism and Cubism. His renderings of the Brooklyn Bridge from this time were a great success and likely inspired (at least partially) Hart Crane's epic modernist poem, The Bridge (1930).

During the twenties Stella also produced a number of collages, drawing on the work of German artist Kurt Schwitters, as well as the anti-establishment Dada movement. His collages consisted of paper scraps, wrappers (some with visible branding or logos), and other bits of ephemera of city life, often interspersed with bold strokes of paint. These collages were never exhibited during his lifetime, and were seen only by his intimate circle of friends and family.

Stella became an American citizen in 1923, but was unable to shake his lingering feelings of homesickness and displacement. He made numerous trips abroad, splitting his time between Paris and Italy from 1926 and 1934, and returned to New York periodically to help coordinate exhibitions of his work. During this time, he began to move away from the modernist aesthetic, looking instead to nature and religion as new sources of inspiration. He traveled to the Caribbean and North Africa, where he focused on capturing their pristine natural environments in his colorful still lifes and bold landscapes. His approach to painting varied a great deal during these years. In some instances, he took advantage of the possibilities of realism; in others he utilized the expressive power of abstraction; and in still others he delved into the complex worlds of surrealism.

Late Period

Stella moved back to New York permanently in 1934, settling in the Bronx with his wife Mary. By this time, his popularity in the United States had begun to fade, and his difficult personality had alienated a number of formerly close friends. He was employed by the Works Project Administration, which provided government funding for the arts. Although he was largely unsympathetic to the populist ethos of the organization, he worked for the WPA until 1937.

In 1938 he traveled to Barbados for the first time with Mary, who was seriously ill. There he was hugely impressed with what he later called "the magic island," which inspired much of his late works. He painted tropical plants and exotic flowers in a manner reminiscent of Gauguin's Tahitian landscapes and portraits. He later commented that his creativity was renewed by the new environment: "My drowsing energy, tortured by the cold of northern countries, was reawakened as if by magic, set aglow by the radiance of gold and purple light. All the ardor of youth surged through me, with the overflowing, stinging, demanding desire for new conquests in the virgin lands of art." Sadly, Mary succumbed to her illness during their visit. Later, Stella again traveled to Europe and Africa, before returning to New York for a retrospective of his work at the Newark Museum in 1939. Unfortunately, the exhibition was not the success he had hoped for, and it failed to renew interest in his work.

He was diagnosed with heart disease in the early 1940s, and became increasingly fretful and anxious about his health. He was often confined to his bed after 1942, and suffered ongoing medical upsets: a surgery for a blood clot in his left eye proved unsuccessful, and he was also seriously injured when he fell down an open elevator shaft. He moved a number of times during the early 1940s, first staying in Little Italy, and then Greenwich Village near friends. He was finally forced to move to Queens, where family members could look after him. He died of heart failure in 1946, and is interred in the Bronx's historic Woodlawn Cemetery.


Legacy

Stella's depictions of New York's cityscapes and industrial architecture led him to become a major figure in the Precisionist movement. This was the first indigenous modern art movement in America, and included artists such as Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Gerald Murphy, Elsie Driggs, and Niles Spencer. Like Stella, these artists chose subjects that were unique to twentieth-century life, including skyscrapers, suspension bridges, and factory complexes.

His earlier, more abstract pieces such as Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (1913-14) can be said to have anticipated Abstract Expressionism and the action paintings of Jackson Pollock. Stella's dynamic, ever-changing style also had a tremendous impact on later artists, including the Color Field paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, the post-Cubist works of Edgar Ewing, and the Abstract Realist urban scenes of De Hirsh Margules, to name just a few.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Joseph Stella
Interactive chart with Joseph Stella's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Gino SeveriniGino Severini
Umberto BoccioniUmberto Boccioni
Paul KleePaul Klee
Arthur DoveArthur Dove
Carlo CarrĂ Carlo CarrĂ 

Friends

Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
Albert GleizesAlbert Gleizes

Movements

CubismCubism
Italian FuturismItalian Futurism
RealismRealism
Joseph Stella
Joseph Stella
Years Worked: 1905 - 1946

Artists

Charles SheelerCharles Sheeler
Charles DemuthCharles Demuth
Georgia O'KeeffeGeorgia O'Keeffe

Friends

Alfred StieglitzAlfred Stieglitz
Katherine DreierKatherine Dreier

Movements

Early American ModernismEarly American Modernism
PrecisionismPrecisionism

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Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon

Edited and revised by Ellen Hurst

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon
Edited and revised by Ellen Hurst
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Useful Resources on Joseph Stella

Books

Websites

Articles

Videos

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Joseph Stella (overview of life and works) Recomended resource

By Irma B. Jaffe

Joseph Stella

By John I. H. Baur

artworks

Joseph Stella (Overview of 1994 Whitney retrospective) Recomended resource

By Barbara Haskell

Joseph Stella's Symbolism Recomended resource

By Irma B. Jaffe

More Interesting Books about Joseph Stella
Defying Classification: Joseph Stella

By Andrea Fernandes
Mental Floss
November 6, 2008

Joseph Stella: A Modernist Who Changed His Methods

By Edward J. Sozanski
Philadelphia Inquirer
June 19, 1994

Painterly Synthesis of a Wanderer's Life Recomended resource

By Holland Cotter
The New York Times
April 22, 1994

Joseph Stella's Pittsburgh

By Stephen May
Carnegie Magazine
July-August 1991

More Interesting Articles about Joseph Stella
Joseph Stella at the Newark Museum Recomended resource

Curator Joseph Jacobs offers a brief description of The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted (1920-22) and its significance to Art History

Joseph Stella

A fan-made video of a selection of Stella's paintings set to music.

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