Italian born, American Futurist painter Joseph Stella is best-known for his cubist and futurist inspired paintings of industrial America. His relentless quest for artistic freedom and his continual experimentation with a variety of styles, media and subjects has made him one of the most versatile and imaginative artists of this century.
Joseph Stella was born June 13, 1877 in Muro Lucano, Italy. He immigrated to the United States in 1896. Initially, his studies were in medicine and pharmacology, but his artistic talents led him to enroll at the New York School of Art where he became a pupil of William Merritt Chase. He learned an appreciation for the Old Masters and the value of artistic experimentation.
In his earliest drawings, Stella portrayed the less glamorous side of New York City. These works express the city’s dynamic atmosphere and the immigrants, laborers, vagabonds and characters of New York's lower East Side. One of his more popular works ‘The Bridge’ became part of the now famous New York Interpreted series.
In 1905, Joseph Stella produced a series of illustrations entitled ‘Americans in the Rough’ for the social reform weekly ‘The Outlook’. A few years later, he began working for another social welfare publication, ‘Charities and Commons’, which later became ‘The Survey’. He was sent to Monongah, West Virginia, to illustrate the effects of a mining disaster on the town. His realistic illustrations put a face on a grave subject that was later used to back up the periodical's plea for improved mine safety laws.
The artist was commissioned to draw steel mill workers and miners in Pittsburgh for ‘The Pittsburgh Survey’ in 1908. The paintings he created during this time are thought to be some of his best. One very powerful image was ‘Miners’ (1908), a highly finished small charcoal. The faces portrayed in the picture give voice to the dangerous nature of mining.
In 1909, Joseph Stella traveled to Europe and had his first encounter with modernism, an enlightenment that would truly mold his distinctive personal style. Fauvism, cubism, and futurism had begun to change the face of art, and it allowed artists such as Stella to use color to capture speed and objects in motion. He embraced the futurist ideas and enthusiasm for the wonders of mechanization, industrialization and technology that were transforming Europe and America.
Returning to New York in 1913, Stella painted ‘Battle of Lights’, ‘Mardi Gras’, ‘Coney Island’, which are some of the earliest American Futurist works. He had a fascination with the Brooklyn Bridge, recognizing it as one of the outstanding symbols of American technology. His painting ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ (1919) is an icon of the Industrial Age and one of his truly loved works.
His art later became increasingly mystical and symbolic as he began to use darker tones for their strong impression and incisive realism. In 1925, a trip abroad acquired him a multi-millionaire patron Carl Weeks, who was building a Gothic-Tudor mansion in Des Moines, Iowa. He was commissioned to paint a panel based on a poem by William Morris. The artist created ‘The Apotheosis of the Rose’, a decorative piece that possesses symbolist qualities.
Joseph Stella died in 1946 and left a body of outstanding work that is only today being appreciated in its entirety.