Joseph Stella - Biography and Legacy
Muro Lucano, Italy
Biography of Joseph Stella
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.
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.
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-20th-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."
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.
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.
The Legacy of Joseph Stella
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 20th-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.