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Joseph Stella

American (born Italy), 1877 - 1946

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Joseph Stella (1877-1946) was one of the most versatile and original talents of the American modernists. Having been born in southern Italy near Naples, he moved at age nineteen to New York, where he studied at the Art Students League and the New York School of Art.1 Stella's genius as a draftsman was recognized during the first decade of the twentieth century, and he received several commissions for magazine illustrations. Best known are those he made for the Pittsburgh Survey, which included romantic, smoke-laden scenes of industrial Pittsburgh and penetrating realistic portraits of coal miners. It was in those drawings that Stella first became transfixed by the imagery of modern America.

Fascinated as well as repelled by New York, however, Stella longed for his homeland, and in 1909 he returned to Italy to study the old masters and, inspired by Venetian painting, to learn the arduous technique of glazing. Two years later, Stella took the advice of the artist and critic Walter Pach and went to Paris, where he quickly met Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and the Italian Futurists; the shock of their work was overwhelming, and he claimed to have been unable to work for six months because of it. Stella wrote in vivid terms of this time, for he saw it as the moment when his independent spirit awakened: "I began to work with real frenzy. What excited me most was the vista in front of me of a new panorama, the panorama of the most hyperbolic chromatic wealth....To feel absolutely free to express this adventure was a bliss and rendered painting a joyful source, spurring the artist to defy and suffer any hardship in order to obtain his goal."2 Still, it was not until after Stella returned to New York in late 1912 that his artistic independence truly asserted itself. In September 1913, seven months after the International Exhibition of Modern Art (the Armory Show),3 which affected him deeply, he experienced a breakthrough on a visit to Coney Island at night, which launched the new style and subject matter that appeared in his first masterpiece, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. Gift of the Collection Societé Anonyme).

Battle of Lights expressed the technological dynamism of the amusement park as a kaleidoscope of brilliantly colored shards surging around a central axis. It was shown at the Montross Gallery in 1914, where it caused a sensation and immediately established Stella as a leading American modernist. However, the painting was the result of huge effort and a great many preparatory studies, as Stella's friend and former teacher Carlo de Fornaro recounted:

Several weeks were dedicated to myriads of observations...in a manner of an artistic detective in a hunt for the solution of a pictorial mystery. He had to visualize the picture on a flat and square canvas...Several nights were dedicated to meditation upon the accumulation of impressions, and then followed the execution in oils of his clear drama...While discussing this artistic parturition, Stella remarked that after weeks of studies and cogitations the full-blown idea had flashed into his mind like an inspiration.4

Indeed, Stella's development of a uniquely American brand of Futurism between 1913 and 1918 yielded a wealth of vibrant studies in oil, pastel, and watercolor. Some of them are clearly preparatory for finished paintings, but others are abstract, emotionally charged depictions of the dynamic effects of movement, color, light, or a combination of all of them. The bright, dotted compositions of the Italian Futurist Gino Severini, whom Stella knew personally, formed the principal influence on his work of this period, but he was also well aware of the work of other Futurist contemporaries through personal acquaintances as well as through exhibitions he saw in New York and abroad. A total of seven oil studies and a large rectangular version of the painting have been linked to the Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, plus the present small oil, which has traditionally been related to that group.5

Among the studies in oil on canvas associated with Battle of Lights, this glowing painting stands alone, for it is the only oil sketch that does not depict an identifiable view of the Coney Island amusement park. Here, Stella concentrated on a purely abstract composition of colored shapes in a type of study he usually executed in pastel or watercolor on paper.6 A central diamond is set against a background of dark colored triangles, which encloses brighter variegated shapes arranged at different angles. As in Battle of Lights, the colors surrounding and defining the diamond are deep and jewel-like, but within it are strokes of pastel shades, thickly applied and overlaid here and there with sprinklings of small dots; these culminate at the base of the diamond in a dense concentration of colors that form a brilliant rosette nucleus. In some ways, these characteristics--especially the glowing rosette of colors--resemble a motif that occurs in another of Stella's paintings of this period: Madonna of Coney Island (1914).7 Yet it would be difficult to argue this connection conclusively, for, as Irma Jaffe acutely observed in her analysis of Stella's work during 1913-18: "There is no way to establish the sequence of the paintings in this group, and therefore no evidence of a consistent evolution of Stella's style during these years."8

Innis Howe Shoemaker, from Adventures in Modern Art: The C. K. Williams II Collection (2009), pp. 274-277.

1. The most recent biographical information on Stella, on which this summary depends, is in Barbara Haskell, Joseph Stella, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994).
2. Quoted in Irma B. Jaffe, Joseph Stella (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 34.
3. Stella himself had two paintings in the Armory Show.
4. Quoted in Jaffe, Joseph Stella, p. 40.
5. The rectangular version, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, is in the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The seven oil studies are the following: Luna Park (1913; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York); Battle of Lights (1913; The Museum of Modern Art, New York); Battle of Lights, Mardi Gras (lost). The above are reproduced in Haskell, Joseph Stella, pls. 58, 51-53, respectively. The lost work has recently been thought to be a photograph of the unfinished painting with Stella's ink additions. Two studies are in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC: Study for "Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras" (1913; 66.4791) and Study for "Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras" (1913; 66.4792), reproduced in Judith Zilczer, Joseph Stella: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1983), nos. 3-4. A Study for "Battle of Lights, Coney Island" (mid-1913) sold at Christie's, New York, March 12, 1992, lot 244 (repro.). Study for "Battle of Lights, Mardi Gras," unpublished, is in a Philadelphia private collection. A double-sided watercolor, Study for "Battle of Lights, Coney Island" (1913-14; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth) is also associated with the painting, but it is so abstract that it could be related to any number of Stella's paintings of 1913-18.
6. See, for example, Futurist Composition (1914, pastel over graphite) reproduced in Haskell, Joseph Stella, p. 60; or Abstraction: Mardi Gras (1914-16, watercolor, gouache, pencil, and metallic paint), reproduced in Zilczer, Joseph Stella, no. 5.
7. Reproduced in Haskell, Joseph Stella, pl. 62. I am indebted to Suzanne Penn, Conservator of Paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for her observations on this subject.
8. Jaffe, Joseph Stella, p. 45.

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