Italian-born Joseph Stella is hailed as America’s first Futurist painter and is best remembered for his dynamic paintings of New York monuments such as Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge. As an important American Modernist Stella would have had enormous influence over subsequent generations of Modernist artists like Knud Merrild, Edgar Ewing, Lyla Harcoff, and Anya Fisher. who helped bring Modernism to the West Coast.
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On June 13, 1877, Giuseppe Michele Stella was born in a mountain village near Naples, Italy. At the age of 18, he arrived at Ellis Island and assimilated the English version of his name, Joseph Stella. His older brother, Antonio Stella, had immigrated to New York years earlier, and was a successful physician who hoped his younger brother would follow in his footsteps.
However, after a year at medical school, followed by another year at pharmacy school, Joseph Stella found his true passion - the arts. While enrolled at the College of Pharmacy, he attended the antique class at the Art Students League in New York. By the end of his first year of pharmacy school, he had given up on his family’s hopes to becoming a physician. Instead, he sought after his own dream, and enrolled at the New York School of Art. There, he was a student of artist William Merritt Chase and was awarded a tuition scholarship for his second year. Under the influence of Chase’s lectures, Stella began to admire the works of Dutch, German and Flemish masters that were on view at the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1903, artist Robert Henri became an instructor at the New York School of art. Once hearing Henri’s belief that no subject was too mundane for art, the young Stella soon turned to illustrating subjects of New York’s immigrant population to which he, himself, belonged. In 1905, Stella’s drawings of immigrants were included in the popular social reform weekly The Outlook. Soon after, Stella became involved in the immigration issues that were sweeping the nation. Arguing for the equal treatment of fellow immigrants, he completed commissions for more social reform weeklies, such as the widely distributed Charities and The Commons.
While working as an illustrator, Stella was also making a name for himself as a painter. In 1906, his painting The Old Man was exhibited at an exhibition of the Society of American Artists in New York. However, despite success in America, Stella grew homesick for his small hometown of Muro Lucano in Italy. In 1909, he sailed for Europe, visiting Rome, Florence, Naples, Muro Lucano, and Paris. During his extended stay in Paris, he witnessed, for the first time, Cubist and Futurist works at the annual Salon des Independants and the Section d’Or exhibition. Influenced by the Italian Futurists, Stella adopted the group’s claims that the modern artist should not look to the past for material; instead, the modern artist must endeavor to express the civilization of his or her own era.
With this new rhetoric in mind, Stella returned to New York in the fall of 1912. Upon his arrival, he broke away from the traditional styles he had been taught years earlier. As if to highlight his schism from tradition even more poignantly, two of his paintings were included in the landmark, modern art Armory Show of 1913. Shortly after, he completed Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, which since its display at the Montross Gallery in the fall of 1913, has been hailed as the first American Futurist painting.
During the early 1920s, Stella earned a reputation as an important figure in American modern art. In 1921, he published his first of many lectures on art in the popular Broom magazine. He also acted as a director of the Society of Independent artists and of the Salons of America. After years as an immigrant in a country that prized him as an artist of their own, Stella finally became a citizen of the United States in 1923. However, despite his new citizenship, Stella was unable to shake feelings of displacement and homesickness. During the next ten years of his life, he lived mainly in Europe, only visiting the United States to help plan exhibitions of his work.
In 1934, Stella settled in the Bronx with his wife Mary French Stella. Over the next decade, his health deteriorated rapidly, and in turn, his reputation as a prolific painter suffered. At the age of 60, he developed heart disease, and was eventually confined to his bed in 1942. In the years following, Stella underwent an unsuccessful surgery for thrombosis in his left eye, and he suffered a serious injury from falling down an open elevator shaft. Despite numerous near-fatal circumstances, Stella’s dance with death ended with a heart attack in 1946.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
It was during his trip to Paris in the early 1910s that Jospeh Stella was first attracted to the Futurist movement of Europe. Initially, Futurism appealed to Stella because of its embracement of all things “modern”: machines, technology, and life in the city. Upon his return to New York, he painted his first work that adhered to the Futurist ideology. The painting was appropriately titled after its theme, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (1914). Living in urban New York, Stella was able to derive most of his subject matter from his place of residence. In the years following, he consistently returned to Futurist themes by illustrating motifs that were characteristic of New York City: the Brooklyn Bridge, skyscrapers, and factory buildings. These themes culminated in his five panel piece titled New York Interpreted (1920-22), which is a homage to the most modern city of the early 20th century. Eventually, these efforts earned Stella the unofficial title of America’s first Futurist.
However much Stella adhered to Futurist themes, he always left room for exploration. As art historian Barbara Haskell has noted, what remained of the Futurist influence on Stella was the goal to illustrate multiple impressions and senses in an individual painting. This tenet of Futurism closely aligned to that of the emerging Symbolist movement, which Stella also began to explore at this moment. His abstractions of this period evoke an intense spirituality through their organic shapes and vivid primary colors. Turning to objects from nature, instead of industry, for subject matter, Stella’s respective flower and Madonna paintings of this period suggest innocence and hold a surreal quality that is reminiscent of the paintings of the Flemish old masters.
When looking back at the career of Joseph Stella, it is clear that the artist avoided allegiance to a single style. For the majority of his life, he alternated between a figural, Surrealist style and an abstract, Futurist style. Though it would be easy to assume that this adherence to two comparatively different styles would create a discord in a catalogue of Stella’s output, this is not so. Rather, a painting in a figural, Surrealist style and a painting in an abstract, Futurist style of his suggest an unspoken dialogue. Taken as a whole, they demonstrate the artist’s own vision for modern art to be driven by the emotion of the artist and not to be pinned down by the precepts of a single style.
1877 Giuseppe Michele Stella born on June 13 to Michele and Vincenza Cerone
1895 Earned degree from the Liceo Umberto I in Naples
1896 Travels to the Unites States and enrolls in medical school in New York City
1897 Attends a class at the Art Student’s League while going to attending medical school
1898 Enrolls full time at the New York School of Art
1901 Attends Chase’s summer school in Shinnecock, Long Island
1902 Marries Barbados-native, Mary Geraldine Walter French, but leaves her in Barbados soon after
1905 Several of his drawings are published in The Outlook
1906 His painting Old Man is included in annual exhibition of the Society of American Artists
1909 Returns to Europe
1912 Visits exhibition by Italian Furturists in Paris. Returns to New York
1914 Summers in Europe and Northern Africa
1915 Befriends Marcel Duchamp and other New York Dadaists
1917 Becomes one of twenty directors of the Society of Independent Artists
1919 Exhibits first “factory painting”
1920 First retrospective takes place
1921 First lecture on art is published in Broom
1922 Acts as one of forty directors of the Salons of America
1923 Moves in with Helen Walser. Becomes a U.S. citizen.
1926-34 For the next eight years, Stella travels to Europe and returns to New York sporadically to help plan exhibitions.
1934 Settles in Bronx with wife Mary French Stella
1937 Elected member of the American Federation of Painters and Sculptors. In fall, he develops heart disease.
1942 Stella is confined to bed and forced to give up studio
1943 Has surgery to treat thrombosis in left eye
1945 Suffers serious injury from falling down an open elevator shaft
1946 Dies of heart attack and his estate is divided among his four nephews
IV. Exhibitions (Select List)
1906 Galleries of the American Fine Arts Society, NY
1908, 1971, 1974 Carnegie Institute Galleries, Pittsburgh, PA
1912 Societe des Artistes Independents, Paris, France
1913 Armory Show, NY
1913 The Art Society of Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Institute
1914 National Arts Club, NY
1915, 1916-22 Bourgeois Galleries, NY
1917, 1936, 1941 Society of Independent Artists, Grand Central Palace, NY
1918 The Penguin Club, NY
1919, 1921, 1923, 1929 The Arts Club of Chicago
1920, 1923-24, 1931 Societe Anonyme, NY
1921, 1944-45, 1967, 1989 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1921 Galerie Montaigne, Paris, France
1921 Worcester Art Museum, MA
1921-46, 1949, 1954, 1958-59, 1963, 1966, 1968, 1975-79, 1981, 1983-84, 1988, 1990, 1994 Whitney Museum of American Art
1922-23, 1926-27, 1930 Salons of America
1923-4 The New Gallery, NY
1924 Architectural League of New York
1924-26 Dudensing Galleries, NY
1925, 1966 Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
1928, 1931, 1935 Valentine Gallery, NY
1928, 1944, 1951, 1958, 1965, 1983 The Brooklyn Museum, NY
1929 Galleria Angiporto, Naples, Italy
1930 Galerie Sloden, Paris
1930-31, 1938 Art Institute of Chicago
1934 Palazzatto Governatoriale delle Esposizioni, Rome
1936-37 Cooperative Gallery, Newark, NJ
1936 Philips Memorial Gallery, Washington, D.C.
1938-40, 1944, 1947, 1951, 1960-62 Museum of Modern Art, NY
1939, 1960, 1963, 1978 Newark Museum
1939 Gallery of American Art Today, New York World’s Fair
1942, 1950, 1952, 1974-75, 1984 Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
1942, 1949, 1965 Knoelder Galleries, NY
1943, 1966, 1970 ACA American Masters Gallery, NY
1944, 1961 Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
1945, 1960, 1962-63 Corcoran Gallery of Art Biennial, Washington, D.C.
1949 Denver Art Museum, CO
1950, 1953, 1965, 1976 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
1956 28th Biennale, Venice, Italy
1958-59, 1961-68 The Downtown Gallery, NY
1958-61, 1964-65 Zabriskie Gallery, NY
1961, 1971 Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE
1963, 1988 Montclair Art Museum, NJ
1964 Baltimore Museum of Art
1965, 1971, 1975 National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
1967, 1990 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
1967 Portland Art Museum, OR
1973, 1978, 1983, 1990 Heckscher Museum, Huntington, NY
1974, 1976-77, 1980, 1987, 1990 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
1976 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY
1980 Tate Gallery, London
1982 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
1988, 1990, 1998 Richard York Gallery, NY
Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina
Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Guilford College Art Gallery, NC
Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY
High Museum of Art, GA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MI
Montclair Art Museum, NJ
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.
Newark Museum, NJ
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Phoenix Art Museum, AR
Portland Art Museum, OR
Sheldon Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Turman Gallery at Indiana State University, IN
Walker Art Center, MN
Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
American Federation of Painters and Sculptors
Society of Independent Artists
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- 2. Haskell, Barbara. Joseph Stella. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994.
- 3. Jaffe, Irma B. Joseph Stella. New York: Fordham University Press, 1988.
- 4. www.askart.com