Joseph Stella


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Painter and draftsman. Best known for radiant, futurist-influenced images of New York's architecture and bridges, he later replaced this vibrant modernist style with a precise realism often tinged with mystical overtones. A consummate draftsman, he produced exquisite silverpoint studies from nature. Born in Muro Lucano, near Naples, Giuseppe Stella moved to New York in 1896 and the next year began his training at the Art Students League. Less than a year later he transferred to the New York School of Art (now Parsons, the New School for Design), where he studied until 1901 with William Merritt Chase. He then worked as an illustrator while painting somberly realistic city scenes. In 1909 he left for Italy and two years later moved on to Paris, where he was first drawn to cubism and other forms of modern art. Late in 1912 he returned to New York, in time to exhibit in the 1913 Armory Show. Soon afterward, his initial futurist work, Battle of Lights, Coney Island (Yale University Art Gallery, 1913–14) numbered among the first, and one of relatively few, American paintings to demonstrate an understanding of that Italian modernist style. His colorful, swirling interpretation of the famous amusement park remains among his signal accomplishments. Throughout the following decade Stella produced romantic, semi-abstract interpretations of New York highlights, particularly the Brooklyn Bridge, which he treated metaphorically as an embodiment of American civilization. He also painted some colorful, purely abstract works. By 1916 he had begun to produce nature studies and symbolic abstractions, such as the pastel Nativity (Whitney Museum, 1917–18). Presaging his subsequent eclecticism, his work of the early 1920s ranged from industrial and urban subjects in a style related to precisionism to hard-edged, decorative nature studies suggesting surrealism. In 1923 he was naturalized as a United States citizen. After several years of moving frequently between the United States and Europe, from 1934 he resided permanently in New York, where he was soon employed by a federal art project. Valuing both tradition and the innovations of modernism, during these years he used whatever means seemed appropriate to his fundamentally poetic and symbolic objectives. At times, his work combined tropical subject matter (inspired by a 1938 visit to Barbados) with a sensuous ornamental style, while at others it reflects an admiration for classical art. His varied output also includes figural studies imbued with religious meaning. In addition, he produced formally sophisticated collages incorporating detritus and other non-art materials. Declining health ended his career in 1942.

Subjects: Art.

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