If you know the painter Joseph Stella, it’s probably from his famous urban landscapes like Brooklyn Bridge (1921), a futurist interpretation of New York’s dramatic 20th-century industrialization. But Stella was just as captivated by the botanical world as he was by cityscapes, and today, Atlantans can see that side of the artist in vivid color. Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature, an explosive new exhibit at the High Museum of Art, features dozens of his flower and plant-filled paintings and drawings. In Atlanta through May 21, the exhibit travels chronologically through Stella’s lifelong love-affair with the natural world, from an early study of a piece of bark to the epic, intricate Tree of My Life.
Visionary Nature was a joint effort between the High; the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach, Florida; and the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where it heads next. “They were really focused on [Stella’s] nature works, and we have a great work by Stella here at the High,” said Stephanie Heydt, the museum’s Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of American Art. “It was a great collaboration.”
Stella was born in 1877 in Muro Lucano, a hilly city in southern Italy. He immigrated to New York originally intending to follow his brother into medicine, but after a uninspired stint in medical school, he pivoted to painting. Stella studied briefly under the impressionist painter William Merritt Chase at the New York School of Art and soon developed a reputation as a sensitive interpreter of the urban working class.
The High’s exhibit features of some of these early works, in which the natural world spills out amidst the smokestacks and steel mills of America’s industrial revolution. “This is the Progressive Era at the turn of the twentieth century,” Heydt explained. “And he’s looking at the people in his own community, specifically the Italian immigrants.”
Traveling back in Europe, Stella was inspired by the contemporary artists he saw there: the cubism of Pablo Picasso and early futurism of Umberto Boccioni. He drew on these sources back in the U.S, earning acclaim for his dynamic geometric paintings of the metropolis; several choice selections, including American Landscape (1929), and Smoke Stacks (1921), are on view in this exhibit.
But even as Stella built his career on the towering achievements of urban industry, he yearned for the sunny landscapes of his youth. He frequented havens like the Bronx Botanical Gardens, which opened in 1891 and offered escape from New York’s sooty streets. Walking through Brooklyn one day, he later wrote in an essay, he stumbled across a sapling.
“This little tree is coming up from a crack in the sidewalk, shadowed by a factory, and he sees himself in this tree,” Heydt said. “He says, This is me.”
That encounter inspired Tree of My Life (1919) a florid aria sung to the natural world. A sturdy olive tree—Stella himself—anchors the canvas, surrounded by a vortex of tropical plants, birds, and, in the background, Stella’s native Italian hills. Brandywine Museum Director Thomas Padon envisaged the exhibit after seeing Tree of My Life in a private collection. “I was transfixed,” Padon told the New York Times.
Stella painted Tree of My Life and Brooklyn Bridge within a year of each other, announcing a duality that would define the rest of this career. While he painted flowers throughout his life, it was his moody, futurist treatments of New York that made him an art-world celebrity. European artists fleeing World War I were landing in New York in droves, sparking a new creative fascination with the cutting-edge American city. “(Marcel) Duchamp says the art of Europe is dead, and this century is about America,” explained Heydt. “Stella’s understood to be one of the first American-based painters to figure out . . . how to paint the new modern city.”
But Stella’s love of the natural world—and of Europe—endured. He returned to botanical themes throughout his life, infused with the Old Master styles of the Italian Renaissance. Many works in this exhibit invoke the sun-drenched vistas and towering cathedrals of Italy, overrun by sumptuous flowers that are decidedly not native to the Iberian peninsula. Stella—a native turned immigrant—seems to delight in the contradiction: in Dance of Spring (1924), tropical orchids and calla lilies burst open in a beam of beatific light, like Jesus rising to the heavens in a Raphael. Purissima (1927), part of the High’s own collection, evokes the iconic Renaissance Madonna, here transformed by Stella’s whimsy: the stamens of a lily serve as her celestial crown, while snowy egrets (the Florida kind) grace her sides.
With saturations of color abounding in every room, Visionary Nature enjoys an added depth through words. Stella was a prolific writer, and the exhibit makes canny use of text to explore his passion for the living world. “My devout wish,” reads one such diary segment on view, “That my every working day might begin and end . . . with the light, gay painting of a flower.” In a unique addition to their exhibition, the High created a short video featuring more of Stella’s own thoughts. “We wanted to end with his voice telling us how he felt about various paintings in the show . . . or his ideas about art,” explained Heydt.
Stella, who died in 1946, spent the last years of his life in ill health, largely confined to his studio. He never stopped painting the natural world; a few of those last works, modest trees still full of flair, are on view here. A few years before his death, his friend and fellow artist Charmion von Wiegand paid a visit to his studio. She found Stella amidst a riot of color, studiously painting his favorite subject. “Flower studies of all kinds litter the floor,” wrote von Wiegand, “and turn it into a growing garden.”