Joseph Stella was a Futurist and painter of symbolic scenes. Born in Muro Lucano, near Naples, Stella was brought to New York City in 1896 as a youth. He enrolled at the Art Students League the following year and at the New York School of Art soon thereafter.
Despite his apparent familiarity with the realistic paintings of “THE EIGHT,” Stella’s early studies of slum life are Rembrandtesque in technique and attitude. Some were published in Outlook and Survey, including a series on industrial Pittsburgh (1908). No doubt, his visit to that city encouraged his interest in such scenes. Stella returned to Europe in 1909, spending time, at first, in Italy, where his study of Venetian techniques and his friendship with Impressionist Antonio Mancini reinforced an interest in sonorous and warm atmospheric colors.
His first significant contact with modernist art took place after his arrival in Paris in 1911. His palette lightened considerable, though he preferred Paul Cézanne and Cubism to Henri Matisse’s Fauvism. Arriving in New York City a few months before the ARMORY SHOW opened in February, 1913, he soon undertook his first Futurist work, Battle of Lights, Mardi Gras, Coney Island (1913-14, Yale University). With MAX WEBER’S views of New York City also painted at that time, it is among the earliest Futurist works completed by an American artist. Though broken into a swirling mass of small colored planes, its basic units are carefully arranged and its faceted forms are clearly delineated in a manner reminiscent of Gino Severini, whose Italian Futurist pictures Stella likely saw in Paris.
Stella’s subsequent essays on Futurism, however, grew more dynamic, departing from Severini’s suave elegance. This trend culminated in his famous Brooklyn Bridge (c. 1919, Yale University), which shows the progressive stages of an automobile’s passage across the roadway. The bridge itself appeared to Stella as a “towering imperative vision,” a “shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America.” In the next few years, however, Stella’s romantic ardor for modern America cooled somewhat and he began to paint more realistic views presented in calmer tonal rather than coloristic patterns. In addition to industrial views that prefigured precisionism, he created the series New York Interpreted (1920-22, Newark Museum), a five-paneled work nearly 23 feet long, depicting bridges and skyscrapers within a religious altarpiece motif.
An artist of wide-ranging taste, Stella began to paint moody nature studies in 1916 in abstract and surreal styles. Meanings, as in Tree of My Life (1919, Iowa State Educational Association, Des Moines), range from the intensely personal to the allegorically banal. In the early 1920s, Stella created the first of about thirty collages, using discarded objects and pieces of cardboard. These are brilliantly original, reflecting an exquisite sense of color and design. At the same time, he painted women in archaizing styles laden with symbolic content.
During the remainder of his career, Stella continued to work with themes that ranged from the mystical to the commonplace and which were set in tropical and urban locales. His style, too, moved from the surreal to the classically ideal (the latter a consequence of his interest in Renaissance art). An international figure, Stella reflected in his art international developments and a concern for ornament that bespoke his southern Italian heritage, as well as a keen response to the American industrial landscape and an intensely personal commitment to invent themes from his own imagination.
Excerpted from Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art, Harper & Row Publishers; New York 1979.