by Timothy A. Eaton


The Flower Paintings of Joseph Stella

by Barbara Rose



Where the American artists looked to indigenous tribal art, however, Stella relied on memories of Neapolitan folk art. Stella spoke of his great debt to Mantegna and Botticelli, but the paintings in the Uffizzi actually have far less to do with his art than Neapolitan peasant textiles and embroidery. The Virgin, Leda and Venus are all cloaked in elaborate versions of the altar cloths depicted in his painting The Manger now in the Newark Museum. Stella apparently collected textiles and folk carvings like the miniature crecihe figures we find again in one of his last works, Still Life with Put to Figurines (Fig. 7). The little carved and painted figurines in the bowl were made for a miniature creche are those he collected when back in Muro Lucano and kept throughout his life. John I. H. Baur, one of Stella's biographers, assumed that the doll-like plaster figure in the center is a baby Jesus. Considering it has female genitals, however, it is more likely the sacrilegious image of a nude infant Madonna, a new Eve, Venus and Virgin rising in ascension.

The connection to a folk tradition, handed over through generations, is not surprising. Muro Lucano was hardly Florence. Stella recalled the pigs roaming the streets and peasant life without electricity. He became, like Duchamp, skeptical that all the modern convenience that provided "eau et gaz a tous les etages" really amounted to progress from the pre-industrial era. When he had to choose between the industrial forms of Duchamp's Large Glass and Hartley's imitations of the folk painting of the German hinterglasmalerei who had inspired Kandinsky, he chose Kandinsky's floating light and color.

Stella's friendship with Duchamp and Man Ray brought him into the New York Dada circle and encouraged his penchant for experimentation. In this context, like Arthur Dove, Stella began to do collages, which remain among his most interesting and forward looking works, anticipating the informel element in Abstract Expressionism. Mostly made of personal memorabilia and city detritus, some are delicate poetic works that incorporate the imprint of leaves and ferns. (Fig. 8,9) These melancholy and nostalgia filled works are as soft and vulnerable as stella's women are hard, cold, distant and impregnable. Their used and worn contents express the artist's feelings toward the end of his life, when the dream of the Futurist Utopia has become the nightmare of the great Depresion.

Stella needed the image, the icon, as the vehicle for poetic content as a catharsis for the demons driving him to distraction. The episodes of ecstatic visionary seizures he describes have an uncanny correspondence with the manic-depressive nightmare described by Kay Jamison in Touched with Fire, her account of the havoc wreaked by bipolar depression. This severe type of mood swing is closely related both to creativity and spirituality.[41] Stella actually describes one of his mystical seizures: "Suddenly the solitude is struck by the lightning of revelation and the artist is seized with exstacy-exstacy at a whole (series) of visions unfolding inexhaustible wealth of forms and colors through unlimited blue Heaven. It is then that Inspiration begins to sing with vehemence, it is then that all the energies of the artist -- unorganized before -- arise linked in a superb effective unity prompted to action by the same law of inevitability of the natural."[42]

It is likely that the stylistic inconsistency that marks Stella's career can be explained by chemistry. The mystical and visionary epiphany, I not French Surrealism nor even less, as has been suggested, Margrittes dream imagery... explains Stella's hallucinations. Rather the derivation of his highly personal forms is once again Italian, the alchemical symbolism behind the "return to reason" in Italy, that turned Carra away from Futurism, toward metaphysical art.


In a speech at given at the Societe Anonyme in 1921, later published in the little magazine, Broom, Stella railed against what had become academic modernism. True artists, he claimed, "always prefer the emotions as expressed by a child to the lucubrations of those warbling theorists who throw harlequin mantles on insipid soapy academic nudes." He was fed up with theories; he agreed with John Marin that discussions of the fourth dimension were meaningless. In notes he made in the Twenties that reveal his grasp on English was hardly perfect he wrote: "Hystory (sic) proves that the Art which emerges and lives for all times is the art abstract. Lately there has been a great confusion about abstract art. Many think that when a painting is not representational, objective, is abstract, for me abstraction is purity of painting itself... Any painter who preoccupies himself chiefly with the orchestration of these elements (lines, form, color) will achieve abstract art, no matter what his inspiration, his subject will be."[43]

The visionary personality is literally "touched with fire". Stella's visions relate to cosmic consciousness, the orgasmic explosions that characterize spiritual hallucinations such as those of the nineteenth century Swedish painter, Hilma af Klint.[44] His elaborate cascading tendrils and fantastic spiked forms recall not only the fantasy plants of the Garden of Delight by Hieryonomous Bosch, the only painter, John Sloan maintained, who could paint the American Scene, but also the zoomorphic grotesqueries that frame Pompeiian frescos. His night blooming floral nocturnes, an invention in themselves, are as phantasmagoric and strange as the imagery of Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil. (Fig. 26, 27)

In 1928, the Madonnas and landscape paintings done in Italy in the Twenties were exhibited in New York at the Valentine gallery, one of the best in the city. The following year the paintings done in this happy period were exhibited at 1929 one-man show Galleria Angiporto, Naples. In 1934, twelve of the Neapolitan paintings were shown in a separate room at the International Exhibition of Sacred Art in Rome. Once again, with war once more menacing Europe, Stella returned to New York. He settled in the Bronx across the street from his beloved Botanical Garden to live again with island wife Mary French, with whom he had not cohabited for decades. Around this time, Esteban Vicente, an anti-fascist Spaniard met Stella. He knew that he was married but never met his wife, which suggests she may have been black at a time when racial intermarriage was not acceptable. Vicente recalls that Stella advised him to get on the W.P.A., which paid him enough to survive, but although Stella became a US citizen in 1923, Vicente was not eligible.[45]

On the W.P.A. Stella met the New York School painters, but he could not connect to their aesthetic because he believed that although they talked about the Old Masters, they misunderstood them. More to the point is that painterliness for Stella had become identified with academic art, and they were involved with painterliness. The Depression was difficult for Stella in many ways. Cut off from Muro Lucano and his roots, he saw the city as bleak and depressing, no longer an ecstatic carnival but a claustrophobic prison for "the motley crowd." Stella believed the masses were the enemy of art; he had no sympathy with the populist ethos of the W.P.A., although he remained employed by the easel division until 1937.

In December of that year, he left for Barbados "the magic island" with Mary French. Vicente believed she was ill and that Stella took her home to die, which she did in 1938. In Barbados he painted luxurious plants and brilliantly colored flowers like the poinsettia. There Stella found his last brief happiness. In an ode to the to the poinsettia he wrote: "It was winter when I arrived in the tropics, and your high~flaming greeting filled my soul with a start of sudden elation: he recalled. "My drowsing energy, tortured by the cold of northern countries, was reawakened as if by magic, set aglow by the radiance of gold and purple light. All the ardor of youth surged through me, with the overflowing, stinging, demanding desire for new conquests in the virgin lands of art. And I watched in trepidation as, right before my astonished eyes, the swaying Bacchic chorus wound its way through the green realms of sensual joy. Irrepressible joy, continuous energy and enthusiasm, a sleepless desire for endless mirth. My life an everlasting festival free of all discord: a long train of fruits and flowers framing and rendering unforgettable our every moment." [46]

He gave to his one figurative painting inspired by Barbados the title of Matisse's masterpiece that launched Fauvism, the Dionysiac The Joy of Life. (Fig. 27) The adolescent black girl (seen in profile of course) who presents the sacred flower offering recalls Gauguin's nubile Polynesians. She is Venus, the Madonna and Flora, incarnation of Spring, Botticelli's three great goddesses of eternal beauty and femininity-rolled into one. She is Joseph Stella's ultimate icon of the desired but unobtainable, l'eternelfeminin to whom all great male painters from Giorgione to Titian to Manet and Cezanne paid homage.

"Our senses are the only sure means that we have got with which to apprehend the treasures of Life." Stella wrote later. " Joy, as vital as the Sun, unseals the golden massive plasticity of Life for the solid base of Art. Only through Blue serenity can Art weave the airy luminous sonority of its music. ...Like Diogenes, I may ask one simple thing: to be left free to face the Sun, for the sipping of life, without the massive support of any Alexander the Great to obstruct light...I abandon myself to the flow of Life, without asking any quo vadis: Life is the only tangible good thing that we have got after all."[47]

From Barbados he went to Paris, Italy and Africa. He returned to the United States in 1939 for his retrospective at the Newark Museum. Later that year he was diagnosed with heart disease. For the next few years he lived in various studios in Little Italy and Greenwich Village near friends like the composer Edgard Varese. His vision impaired by thrombosis in his left eye, he fell down an open elevator shaft. His worst nightmare came true: he was forced to be dependent on others and had to move to Queens where his sister-in-law and nephew could care for him.

On November 5, 1946, at the age of sixty-nine, Joseph Stella died of a heart attack. A star of the Armory Show and a member of the inner circle of the American avante garde, he was now virtually unknown as the young Turks of the New York School took center stage. His funeral was held at Our Lady of Pompeii, the local church of the Neapolitan community on Sleeker Street in Little Italy. There were of course, many flowers at the funeral.


End Notes

1 He must have come into contact with Bridgeman's theories of "dynamic symmetry" taught at the League because his latter notes on composition seem to refer to them.

2 "The New Art", The Trend, June, 1913, pp. 393-95. Stella filled notebooks with jottings. Some were published; others were not. Excerpts from his writings were first published by Irma Jaffe in Italian in 1970., (Joseph Stella. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970) later they were translated as an appendix to the 1994 Whitney Museum retrospective catalogue. All citations from that text are hereafter referred to as Whitney.

3 Chase's negative feelings of Cezanne appeared to have rubbed off on Stella. The most important relationship Stella formed at the Chase school was with Marsden Hartley and there are parallels in their development throughout, including the Segentini's "Stitch Pattern" in their early works, their search for a mystical icon, their visionary ecstatic interpretation of landscapes and technique experiments with painting on glass. Stella's interest in Primitive and Folk art, relates to Hartley's investigation of the decorative possibilities of these styles especially in paintings like Still Life with Putto Figurenes.

4 He had symptoms of what has recently been diagnosed as S.A.D syndrome

5 Whitney, p.207 6 ibid., p.210

7 ibid., p.210

8 "Stella Autobiography", Artnews, November, 1960. (Written in 1948)

9 ibid.

10 ibid.

11 ibid.

12 ibid.

13 ibid.

14 ibid.

15 ibid.

161rma B. Jatte, Joseph Stella, New York: Fordham University Press, 1970, 1988, pp.29-30

17 Whitney, pg 212

18 ibid.

19 ibid.

20 ibid.

21 ibid.

22 ibid.

23 ibid.

24 Jatte,

25 Whitney, p. 212

26 ibid.

27 Stella, The Birth of Venus, Whitney, p. 136. He is referring here to Giotto's famous "not one day without line".

28 ibid.

29 ibid.

30 ibid.

31 ibid.

32 ibid.

33 According to a 1929 interview published in the Milanese newspaper L'Ambrosiana

34 Whitney, pp. 212-214

35 ibid.

36 ibid.

37 ibid.

38 ibid.

39 Stella's shift of his spirituality in the late Twenties and Thirties to conventional Catholic subject matter is probably related to the collapse of the art market and the need to sell work to a wider public.

40 John I. Baur, Joseph Stella (New York and London. Fredrich Prager, 1970)

41 Schildkraut, Joseph, editor. Bi-polar Depression and Spirituality (London: Wiley and Sons, 1965) Whitney., p.

42 Kay Reedfield Jamison, Touched with Fire Free Press, New York: 1993), pp. 60-80, 88-89, 267-270.

43 Whitney., pp. 212-214

44 "The case of the Artist Hilma at Klint," Ake Fant, The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting, 1890-1985, Abbeville Press, Los Angeles County Museum, 1985

45 Interview with the Author, November, 1997. Stella was hired on the easel division in 1935 and remained employed on the WPNFAB until his departure to Barbados in December 1937

46 Stella, To the Poinsetta, Whitney, p.205. 47 ibid.


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