Joseph Stella (* 1877 Muro Lucano IT †1946 New York US) was an Italian-born American Futurist painter known for his association with the American Precisionism movement of the 1910s-1940s and works depicting industrial America.
Stella was born in 1877 in Muro Lucano, Italy, a mountain village close to Naples. While both his father and Grandfather were attorneys, when he was 19 Stella relocated to New York City to study medicine, in the footsteps of his older brother. However, he quickly abandoned his medical studies, joining instead the Art Students League and the New York School of Art under William Merrit Chase. During this time, Stella’s early works featured a Rembrandtesque style and depicted scenes from city slum life.
Between 1905 and 1909, Stella worked as an illustrator. A skilled draftsman, he created drawings throughout various phases of his career. In 1908, he gained a commission for a series on industrial Pittsburgh, which was published in The Pittsburgh Survey. Despite making a promising start, Stella had grown unhappy in New York, and travelled to Europe in 1909 where he was exposed to Modernism for the first time. He spent about a year in Italy and then went to Paris, where he met Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and a number of the Italian futurists, including Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, and Gino Severini. This would later heavily influence his unique personal style.
Upon his return to America, Stella became associated with Alfred Stieglitz and the Walter Arensberg circles in Manhattan. In 1913-1914, he painted Battle of Lights, Coney Island, one of the earliest and greatest American Futurist works. His participation in the legendary Armory Show of 1913 gave Stella even greater impetus to experiment with modernist styles. Stella refined and applied his futurist approach to the American industrial scene, glorifying it by lending to it a precisionist character not unlike that of Charles Sheeler and Niles Spencer.
In the 1920s, Stella produced a number of works that reflected the architecture of Lower Manhattan, combining the elements of both Futurism and Cubism. It was during this period that Stella produced his most famous works, including those featuring the Brooklyn Bridge and New York Cityscapes. These works demonstrate a popular concept of the time, where industry would replace the role of religion in modern life, in his case the Brooklyn Bride becoming a powerful icon of stability and solidarity.
In the 1930s, Stella worked on the Federal Art Project, and later travelled to Europe, North Africa and the West Indies. During this time, Stella utilized a variety of styles, including Realism, Surrealism, and Abstraction which brought to the establishment of his reputation as a bold and innovative artist who was able to convey the excitement of the city and modern life. At the same time, he was compelled to express the powerful spiritual connection he felt with the natural world through his many paintings of flora and fauna. This was a subject the artist would pursue persistently through his entire career, becoming a prolific creator of lyrical and exuberant depictions of flowers, plants and birds. Stella saw a purity and beautiful mystery in nature and explored it with passion, combining realism and fantasy in a modernist idiom.
Stella is particularly respected today for his work as a draftsman and his portraits on paper. Diagnosed with heart disease in the early 1940s, he succumbed to his illness in 1946 and is now interred in a mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City. Works by Stella can be found in several museums and institutes including but not limited to the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Yale University Art Gallery; Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Newark Museum; the Chicago Art Institute; and Brooklyn Museum, New York.