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Joseph Stella

Written by Brett Nelson

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Posted on September 26 2019

Born: June 13, 1877, Muro Lucano, Italy
Died: November 5, 1946, New York, New York, United States

A modernist and futurism painter who explored a broad range of subjects throughout his career, Joseph Stella was best known for his depictions of the industrial side of America, including his famous images of the Brooklyn Bridge. Born into a middle-class family in a small village called Muro Lucano located in the province of Potenza in Italy in 1877, Stella was initially encouraged to become an attorney like his grandfather Antonio and his mother Michele. However, Stella wanted to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Doctor Antonio Stella, and in 1896 he made the journey to New York to study medicine. Stella’s attention quickly moved away from medicine upon arriving in New York and he became fascinated by the thriving art scene in the city. He abandoned his medical studies and enrolled in the New he became fascinated by the thriving art scene in the city. He abandoned his medical studies and enrolled in the New York School of Art, studying at the Art Students League under William Merritt Chase. He displayed an incredible talent for producing depictions of slum life in the city, a theme which would follow him throughout his career.

Between 1905 and 1909 he worked as a realist illustrator, providing images and drawings for various magazines. Slowly he moved from an academic realist to a modernist style and in 908 he was commissioned to portray a series of drawings on industrial Pittsburgh which were later published in the Pittsburgh Survey. He returned to Italy in 1909, where he quickly became associated with the Italian futurists, a move which would shape his personal style for the rest of his career. He remained in Italy for two years before moving to Paris, a city where Futurism, Cubism, and Fauvism was reaching its peak in contrast to the Renaissance in Italy which held back contemporary painters. The move to Paris occurred at just the right time for Stella, who associated himself with a wide range of like-minded individuals, expanding his thought process and evolving his style. He returned to New York in 1913 and became part of the Alfred Stieglitz circles, enjoying participation in large displays such as the Armory Show of 1913. The show led to him becoming a major figure in New York’s art world.

Throughout the 1920s, Stella remained in New York and focused on the geometric qualities of lower Manhattan. It was during this period that he painted his most famous works including, Brooklyn Bridge, an incredible rendition of the landmark with sweeping lines and energy throughout the painting. In the 1930s, Stella worked on the Federal Art Project and traveled across the world including a return to Europe, and trips to the West Indies and North Africa. He continually moved from one style to another during this period, covering realism, abstraction, and surrealism. By the late 1930s, Stella was in decline and his works were not receiving the attention they had early in his career. He had alienated many of his friends and his style was considered outdated and no longer in style. His displays at the Newark Museum in 1939 were not received as enthusiastically as he had expected, symbolizing the significant downturn in his career. He was diagnosed with a heart disease in the early 1940s and began to suffer from long periods of morbid anxiety. By 1942 he confined to his bed and throughout the following years he underwent an unsuccessful surgery to treat thrombosis in his left eye and suffered serious injury from falling down an elevator shaft. After a number of near misses, the combination of ailments finally took their toll in 1946 when he died from heart failure.

View Joseph Stella Gallery