Joseph Stella (1877–1946)

An American Futurist painter and a leading figure in the origins of American Modernism

By Alexandra A. Jopp

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

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VI. Suggested Resources


I. Biography

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.

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.

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.

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. 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

Stella’s work in the early 1920s ranged from industrial and urban subjects to “precisionism to hard-edge, decorative studies suggesting surrealism.”6 After several years of traveling between the United States and Europe, Stella permanently settled in New York in 1934. At times, inspired by a 1938 visit to Barbados––“the magic island”––he included tropical subject matter with an opulent decorative style in his paintings, while at other times, he demonstrated awe for Renaissance art. His works during this time also include several figural studies saturated with religious meaning. In 1946, he died of a heart attack at age 69.

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.

II. Chronology

1877 Born Giuseppe Michele Stella on June 13 to Michele and Vincenza Cerone in Muro Lucano,
southeast of Naples, Italy
1894 Oldest brother, Antonio, immigrated to the United States
1895 Earned degree from the Liceo Umberto I in Naples
1896 Joined brother Antonio in New York City; enrolled in medical school but left after one year
1897 Attended class at Art Students League while enrolled at College of Pharmacy in New York
1898 Transferred to New York School of Art (now Parsons, the New School for Design), where he studied until 1901 with William Merritt Chase
1901 Attended Chase’s outdoor summer school in Shinnecock, Long Island
1902 Married Mary Geraldine Walter French
1905 Had several drawings published in The Outlook
1909 Traveled to Italy, spending time in Florence, Rome, Naples, and Muro Lucano
1911 Moved to Paris, where he was drawn to Cubism and other forms of Modern art
1912 Returned to New York
1915 Befriended Marcel Duchamp and other New York Dadaists
1916 Began to produce nature studies and symbolic abstractions, such as pastel Nativity (1917–18)
1917 Became one of twenty directors of Society of Independent Artists
1919 Exhibited first “factory painting”
1920 First retrospective held
1921 First lecture on art published in Broom
1922 Painted a series of Madonnas in Naples, Italy
1923 Became naturalized citizen of United States; moved in with Helen Walser.
1926–34 Lived mainly in Paris and Northern Italy (Florence, Siena, Perugia, Assisi, Ravenna), focusing his art on floral motifs
1934 Moved to Bronx with wife Mary
1937 Elected member of American Federation of Painters and Sculptors; heart disease discovered in fall
1938 Went to Barbados with wife, who died the same year
1942 Confined to bed and forced to give up studio
1945 Suffered serious injury from falling down open elevator shaft
1946 Died on November 5 at age 69 of heart attack

III. Collections

Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
Amon Carter Museum, Texas
Art Institute of Chicago
Brooklyn Museum
Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences, Charleston, West Virginia
Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
Dallas Museum of Art
Guilford College Art Gallery, North Carolina
Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Indiana State University Art Collection
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
Reynolds House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Seavest Collection of Contemporary American Realism
Sheldon Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
The Huntington Library, California
The Newark Museum, New Jersey
Walker Art Center, Minnesota
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City

IV. Exhibitions

1906 Galleries of the American Fine Arts Society, New York
1910 Carnegie Institute (solo)
1912 Societe des Artistes Independents, Paris
1913 Armory Show
1917, 1936, 1941 Society of Independent Artists
1918 The Penguin Club, New York
1919, 1921, 1923, 1929 The Arts Club of Chicago
1920, 1923–24, 1931 Societe Anonyme, New York
1921 Galerie Montaigne, Paris, France
1921 Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts
1922–46, 1994 Whitney Museum of American Art (retrospective)
1922-23, 1926–27, 1930 Salons of America
1930–31, 1938 Art Institute of Chicago
1934 Palazzatto Governatoriale delle Esposizioni, Rome
1939 Newark Museum (solo)
1944 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1945 Corcoran Gallery of Art (biennial)
1940s American Contemporary Art Gallery, New York
1956 28th Biennale, Venice, Italy
1958–59, 1961–68 Downtown Gallery, New York
1958–61, 1964–65 Zabriskie Gallery, New York
1960 Museum of Modern Art (solo)
1961, 1971 Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska
1964 Baltimore Museum of Art
1967, 1990 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1967 Portland Art Museum
1973, 1978, 1983, 1990 Heckscher Museum, Huntington, New York
1974, 1976–77, 1980, 1987, 1990 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
1976 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1980 Tate Gallery, London
1982 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
1988, 1990, 1998 Richard York Gallery, New York (solos)

V. Memberships

American Federation of Painters and Sculptors
Society of Independent Artists

VI. Notes

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

VII. Suggested Resources

Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who Was Who in American Art: 1564-1975. Vol. III. Madison, CT: Sound
View Press, 1999.
Haskell, Barbara. Joseph Stella. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994.
Jaffe, Irma B. Joseph Stella. New York: Fordham University Press, 1988.
Rose, Barbara. Joseph Stella: Flora. West Palm Beach: Eaton Fine Art, Inc., 1997.
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