This summer, the Brandywine Museum of Art will present the first major museum exhibition dedicated to the exquisite, nature-based works of the pioneering American modernist painter, Joseph Stella (1877-1946). The exhibition, Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature on view from June 17 through September 24, 2023, will feature more than 80 paintings and works on paper, revealing the breadth of the artist’s multi-faceted practice and his complex response to the spiritual qualities he felt in nature.
Stella is best known for the series of dynamic, Futurist-inspired paintings of New York that launched his career—specifically of the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island—created between 1913-1920. As this exhibition will reveal, he also created exuberant depictions of organic form for over three decades. Stella’s subjects included bold, stylized compositions featuring exotic plants and birds, religious works incorporating elaborate floral motifs, and tropical fantasies inspired by visits to North Africa and Barbados. His close observation and spiritual responses to nature shaped a poetically transcendent body of work that combines elements of realism and fantasy.
Born in a small town in the mountains of southern Italy, Stella immigrated to New York in 1896. He briefly attended medical school before studying with William Merritt Chase at the New York School of Art and Shinnecock Summer School of Art from 1898 through 1901. Stella returned to Italy in 1909 and spent the next several years in Europe, eventually making his way to Paris in 1912, where he was first exposed to the artistic strategies of Cubism, Futurism and Dada art. After arriving back to New York in 1913, Stella had an established reputation as a leading avant-garde artist whose work conveyed the energy of the city and modern life. Stella’s most enduring acclaim came from his Cubist/Futurist body of work inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge. By 1919, however, a nostalgia for what he recalled as the “blue distances of my youth in Italy” and a visceral feeling of being suffocated by New York led Stella to turn away from urban imagery towards forms found in nature.
Visionary Nature begins with works that demonstrate how Stella’s exposure to Cubism, Futurism and Dadaism impacted his earliest nature-based subjects. Experimenting with color and materials, the artist produced luminous floral paintings on glass and employed natural materials like leaves and tree bark in innovative collages. The exhibition contains a selection of Stella’s silverpoint renderings of botanical form—a medium and subject that would engage him his entire career- and also features a selection of work that grew out of Stella’s recurrent trips back to Italy after 1921, revealing a continued visual and metaphorical exploration of his roots. These paintings are light-filled landscapes with fulsome, often highly stylized flora and fauna; some even feature oversized Madonna figures—a direct reference to the liturgical traditions of his youth.
Another incredible piece to the exhibition are studies of plants and flowers inspired by Stella’s frequent visits to the New York Botanical Gardens and the elaborate, operatic compositions—full of drama and movement—that emerged from those visits, as well as his travels to Italy, North Africa and Barbados. “Stella’s 1937 journey to Barbados profoundly resonated with him, and he wrote ecstatically of its beauty and how it reinvigorated and inspired him,” said Audrey Lewis, Associate Curator at the Brandywine Museum of Art and co-curator of the exhibition. When Stella’s health began to suffer around 1940, however, he turned inward, creating small, exquisite silverpoints of flowers in his studio. These works would remain Stella’s focus until his death in 1946.
Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, published by the Brandywine and the High Museum of Art, featuring essays by Stephanie Heydt, the High’s Margaret and Terry Stent curator of American art and lead exhibition curator; Ara H. Merjian, professor of Italian studies at New York University; Ellen Roberts, curator of American art at the Norton Museum of Art, where the exhibition previously traveled; Karli Wurzelbacher, Heckscher Museum of Art curator; and an annotated timeline by the Brandywine’s Audrey Lewis.