Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature
On view through May 21, 2023
Italian-born American modernist Joseph Stella (1877–1946) is primarily recognized for his dynamic Futurist-inspired paintings of New York, especially the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island. Lesser known, but equally as ambitious, is his work dedicated to the natural world, a theme that served as a lifelong inspiration. Throughout his career, Stella produced an extraordinary number of works—in many formats and in diverse media—that take nature as their subject. These lush and colorful works are filled with flowers, trees, birds, and fish—some of which he encountered on his travels across continents or during his visits to botanical gardens, while others are abstracted and fantastical. Through these pictures, he created a rich and variegated portrait of nature, a sanctuary for a painter in a modern world.
Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature is co-organized by the High and the Brandywine River Museum of Art and is the first major museum exhibition to exclusively examine Stella’s nature-based works. The exhibition features more than one hundred paintings and works on paper that reveal the complexity and spirituality that drove Stella’s nature-based works and the breadth of his artistic vision. Through expanded in-gallery didactics, including a graphic timeline of Stella’s career and a short film, the exhibition digs deeply into the context of the works, exploring their inspirations, meanings, and stylistic influences.
Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida (October 15, 2022–January 15, 2023)
Brandywine Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania (June 17, 2023–September 24, 2023)
Banner Image: Joseph Stella (American, born Italy, 1877–1946), Flowers, Italy (detail), 1931, oil on canvas, Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Marshall, 1964.20.
Photograph of Joseph Stella seated in a chair, undated, Joseph Stella Papers, 1905–1970, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Click on an image below to learn more.
American Landscape, 1929American Landscape, 1929
Stella captures the pulsing, nocturnal energy of New York in this 1929 rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge. He made at least six major works featuring this subject—the first, in 1919, a massive composition that dazzled audiences with its fractured nocturnal cityscape and pulsing web of cables centered on a road leading to the distant metropolis. Equally commanding in its scale, this later version features an oblique view, with the city virtually walled off by the cables and structure of the bridge. He painted this picture from memory while in Paris to include in his first exhibition there.
American Landscape, 1929
Oil on canvas
Collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, gift of the T. B. Walker Foundation, 1957, 1957.15
Spring (The Procession), ca. 1914–1916Spring (The Procession), ca. 1914–1916
This painting’s arabesques and kaleidoscopic composition announced Stella’s embrace of the new modes of abstraction he encountered in Paris. Although the glamor of the modern American city became a natural muse for his new style, with Spring, he turned unexpectedly to nostalgic themes of pastoral Italy. The painting evoked his childhood memories of the festive religious processions that wound through the village streets, flowers everywhere, and is among his earliest efforts to synthesize themes of Italy and nature, a recipe he would follow throughout the next twenty years of his career.
Spring (The Procession), ca. 1914–1916
Oil on canvas
Yale University Art Gallery, gift of Collection Société Anonyme, 1941.692
Untitled (Tree Trunk), ca. 1909–1911Untitled (Tree Trunk), ca. 1909–1911
Stella’s fascination with trees began early in his career and lasted through his final compositions. This etching shows one of his earliest attempts to represent the large and knobby features of a trunk while leaving out the rest of the tree, a vantage point he would adopt time and again in his tree paintings.
Untitled (Tree Trunk), ca. 1909–1911
Etching on paper
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Carl and Marian Mullis, 1995.158
Tropical Sonata, 1920–1921Tropical Sonata, 1920–1921
Rising from a gnarled trunk to a swirl of pointy leaves radiating from a central core, the viewer’s eye moves through dramatic passages like the progression of movements in a musical score. The title of this work reflects Stella’s desire to translate the experience of music into a visual language—an interest that persisted throughout his career. Yet the fiery sky and angular forms in this picture recall the colors and shapes of his industrial pictures. Though Stella often kept the worlds of nature and industry distinct, in works such as Tropical Sonata, visual overlaps appear.
Tropical Sonata, 1920–1921
Oil on canvas
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, purchase, 63.63
Tree of My Life, 1919Tree of My Life, 1919
Flora and fauna fill every inch of this massive canvas, alongside symbols of personal significance to Stella. Vignettes from his hometown in Italy, references to Old Master paintings, and architectural structures reminiscent of a garden conservatory emerge as details amid plants, fruits, flowers, and birds. The clear blue sky—a recurring feature of Stella’s later nature-based works—filters through a glorious orb cradled within the tree’s uppermost branches. In the gnarled tree itself, thought to be an ancient olive native to Stella’s region of Italy, he inserts himself: a heavyset, larger-than-life man who spans both worlds, the old and the new, emboldened and embraced by nature.
Tree of My Life, 1919
Oil on canvas
Art Bridges, purchase, AB.2018.21
The Water Lily, ca. 1924The Water Lily, ca. 1924
Stella created about a dozen reverse glass paintings, applying paint to one side of a sheet of glass to be viewed from the other side. He may have been inspired to experiment in this medium by his friend Marcel Duchamp, who was also using glass in his work at this time. Stella depicts a water lily viewed from above, a flower he likely saw on his frequent trips to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, with outdoor gardens and a conservatory. In the 1920s, the Botanical Garden was renowned for its experiments with the cross-hybridization of water lilies, which produced exceptionally colorful plants.
The Water Lily, ca. 1924
Oil on glass
Collection of Samuel G. Rose
Lyre Bird, ca. 1925Lyre Bird, ca. 1925
Although the subject appears to be a mythical specimen, the exquisite lyrebird depicted in this painting is a songbird native to Australia. Under threat of extinction, the exotic bird aroused great interest in the early 1900s and was widely visible in scientific publications and newspaper articles alike. Stella may have encountered it through illustrations and taxidermized specimens in natural history museums. Although his attraction to this unusual creature may have been its fascinating plume, the bird is also capable of remarkable vocal mimicry, a characteristic that—as an artist inspired by all the senses—must also have intrigued Stella.
Lyre Bird, ca. 1925
Oil on canvas
Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, gift of Stephen C. Clark, 1954.21
Swans (Night), ca. 1917Swans (Night), ca. 1917
Swans (Night), ca. 1917
Pastel on paper
Courtesy of Adelson Galleries
Purissima, 1927Purissima, 1927
Purissima is among Stella’s most striking religious paintings. Standing nearly life size, like an altarpiece, the figure recalls spiritual paintings found in churches across Italy as well as sculptural effigies of the Madonna, often adorned with flowers and fruit and paraded through the streets in religious processions. Here the Madonna is part Christian icon and part goddess of nature—the soaring stems of the pink lilies delineate a celestial throne, a common feature in traditional imagery, while the stamen of the central flower suggests the Virgin’s crown. Flanking her on either side are Mount Vesuvius and the outline of Capri, landmarks of the Bay of Naples.
Oil on canvas
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from Harriet and Elliott Goldstein and High Museum of Art Enhancement Fund, 2000.206
The Amazon, 1925The Amazon, 1925
“I was struck by the conquests obtained in every domain by the American woman. My admiration for her became keener, and I painted, in her homage a canvas entitled Amazon (the amazon of our time).” Thus Stella recalled his inspiration for his portrait of Kathleen Millay, an early twentieth-century writer elevated to a heroic status through the title’s evocation of the warrior women of Greco-Roman myth. Although Millay was American, Stella painted her against the silhouetted backdrop of the Italian island of Capri “to uplift her PRESENCE in a legendary realm,” inscribing the modern American woman within a timeless, Homeric landscape.
The Amazon, 1925
Oil on canvas
The Baltimore Museum of Art, purchase with exchange funds from the Edward Joseph Gallagher III Memorial Collection, BMA 1991.13
Dance of Spring (Song of the Birds), 1924Dance of Spring (Song of the Birds), 1924
Here Stella assembles a classical temple of flora and fauna—in his own words, culled “from the elysian lyricism of the Italian spring.” Flowers rise from a pink lotus at the base of a central column, culminating in the curious combination of a lupine and a longhorn steer’s head flower, a floral form that resembles a bull’s skull. Below perch three sparrows, the national bird of Italy and a favorite of Stella’s.
Dance of Spring (Song of the Birds), 1924
Oil on canvas
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bebe and Crosby Kemper Collection, gift of the Enid and Crosby Kemper Foundation, 2003.03.01
Study for Song of Birds, ca. 1924Study for Song of Birds, ca. 1924
Study for Song of Birds, ca. 1924
Silverpoint and crayon
Private collection, courtesy of Gerald Peters Gallery, New York
Red Flower, 1929Red Flower, 1929
Red Flower is one of a group of works Stella made in Paris in 1929 that take on an overall darker tone. New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell characterized the picture as “eerie,” noting, “the artist mixes his paint with mysterious ingredients known only to alchemists. He has learned how to make color glow through dark, opaque forms.” The amaryllis in Red Flower materializes out of the blackness as if by magic, with leaves and petals splayed and two birds framing the central form, evoking religious paintings of apostles flanking Christ on the cross.
Red Flower, 1929
Oil on canvas
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2006.102
Swan (with Rainbow), ca. 1924Swan (with Rainbow), ca. 1924
The swan—often associated with the Greek god Zeus and the form he took in his passionate pursuit of Leda in classical mythology—conjures notions of sensuality, beauty, purity, and power. The animal appears as detail in several of Stella’s works inspired by Italy. Yet in this monumental presentation, the bird takes center stage, filling the composition. With its round format, common among religious paintings of the Renaissance, Swan assumes near spiritual status.
Swan (with Rainbow), ca. 1924
Oil on canvas
Collection of C. K. Williams II
Untitled, ca. 1918Untitled, ca. 1918
Stella made some sixty-five collages over the course of three decades, a collection of largely untitled compositions he referred to in Italian as macchine naturali—or “natural machines.” The term itself combines the two concepts, the humanmade and the natural, into a single composition. Assembled of found objects, many include botanical elements such as branches or leaves. Though Stella never exhibited his collages publicly, the whimsy and freedom he expresses in these compositions may have informed his work in other media.
Untitled, ca. 1918
Collage (leaf and paper) on paper
Courtesy of Kraushaar Galleries, New York
Gardenia, ca. 1940Gardenia, ca. 1940
Gardenia, ca. 1940
Colored pencil and graphite on paper
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Highland Vineyard Foundation in memory of Harriet and Elliott Goldstein, 2010.214
“To refresh and rebuild my chromatic vision I went to the flowers to learn the secret of the vibration of their colors.” —Joseph Stella, The Birth of Venus, 1941
The New York Times | “An Urban Painter’s Fantastic Floral Visions”
Forbes | “‘Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature’ Awakens the Artist’s Legacy Beyond Bridges”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | “10 Don’t-Miss Events in the New Year”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | “Joseph Stella show a fantastic voyage”
Palm Beach Daily News | “Joseph Stella, Street Photography Exhibits Opening This Fall at Norton”
Boca Raton Magazine | “Nature Is Joyful, Abundant in Norton’s Captivating Joseph Stella Exhibition”
Wall Street Journal | “‘Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature’ Review: An Artist of Split Affections”
This exhibition is co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Brandywine River Museum of Art.
Lead sponsorship provided by:
Major support for the exhibition catalogue is provided by
Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor
Premier Exhibition Series Supporters
ACT Foundation, Inc.
William N. Banks, Jr.
Burton M. Gold
Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporters
Robin and Hilton Howell
Ambassador Exhibition Supporters
Mrs. Fay S. Howell/The Howell Fund
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Mrs. Harriet H. Warren
Elizabeth and Chris Willett
Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters
Farideh and Al Azadi
Sandra and Dan Baldwin
Mr. Joseph H. Boland, Jr.
Mr. and Mrs. Robin E. Delmer
Helen C. Griffith
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Margot and Danny McCaul
Wade A. Rakes II & Nicholas Miller
USI Insurance Services
Generous support is also provided by
Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.