A pioneering American modernist, Joseph Stella (1877–1946) is best known for his dynamic Futurist-inspired paintings of New York. Yet he also expressed his powerful spiritual connection to the natural world through his 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. Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature is the first major museum exhibition to focus exclusively on his nature subjects and will feature nearly 90 paintings and works on paper drawn from museums and private collections. Stella once wrote that his wish was “that my every working day might begin and end, as a good omen, with the light, gay painting of a flower.” This was not just a sentimental musing, but a small reflection of how profoundly he believed in the need for nature as spiritual sustenance.
Born in the southern Italian mountain village of Muro Lucano, Stella immigrated to New York in 1896 at the age of eighteen. After studying art with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, he returned to Italy in 1909, beginning a lifetime of travel back and forth from his native country, as well as frequent visits to Paris, where he absorbed the influences of Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism. While Stella was enamored with industrial themes and the energy of New York, he was ambivalent about its dark power, writing of the city as “a monstrous dream. . . the skyscrapers like bandages stifling our breath, life shabby and mean, provincial, sometimes shadowy and hostile like an immense prison.” His nature subjects were one way he counteracted the sense of claustrophobia he felt in the city, allowing him to harken back to the joy he found in the light and open space of his native Southern Italy.
The exhibition will be organized into groupings that will reveal the myriad directions that Stella’s engagement with nature took him, beginning with his delicate renderings in silverpoint and crayon, including the Norton’s Lilies with Forms of circa 1920. Stella’s fantasy-packed floral, plant, and bird canvases will follow, revealing the artist’s distinct vision and his intent to evoke a sense of wonder and revelation. His complex allegorical works that incorporate the Madonna amidst elaborate floral motifs will come next and demonstrate his devotion to 15th-century Italian painting, as well as his familiarity with the aesthetics of Catholic rituals. The culmination of the exhibition will be those works emerging from Stella’s trip to Barbados in the late 1930s as well as the drawings he continued to execute when he was in poor health at the end of his life. Throughout his career, Stella used his art to engage with nature, finding in the rendering of this subject a spirituality and joy that were otherwise absent from the modern world.
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Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature is co-organized by the Brandywine River Museum of Art and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Lead sponsorship provided by the Henry Luce Foundation.
Major support for this exhibition at the Norton was provided by The Cornelia T. Bailey Foundation, with additional support provided by The Lunder Foundation - Peter and Paula Lunder Family, the Priscilla and John Richman Endowment for American Art, and JPMorgan Chase & Co.