This spring, the High Museum of Art
presents the first major museum exhibition dedicated to the nature-based works of pioneering American modernist painter Joseph Stella (1877-1946), which features more than 120 paintings and works on paper that reveal the breadth of the artists multi-faceted practice. Co-organized by the High and the Brandywine River Museum of Art, Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature debuted at the Norton Museum of Art in October 2022 and will be on view at the High from Feb. 24 to May 21, 2023, before traveling to the Brandywine in June 2023.
Though Stella is primarily recognized for his dynamic Futurist-inspired paintings of New York, particularly of the Brooklyn Bridge, he was also compelled to express the powerful connection he felt to the natural world, a subject he pursued persistently throughout his career. Visionary Nature presents an overdue examination of the complexity and spirituality driving Stellas nature-based works, illustrating the inspirations, sources and stylistic influences behind their creation.
Its our pleasure to collaborate with the Brandywine to organize the first exhibition that extensively explores this important aspect of Stellas work, which spanned a range of subjects and challenged what was considered modernism in the early 20th century, said Rand Suffolk, the Highs Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., director. Stellas 1927 Purissima has long been a favorite of the Highs collection and is a strong example his nature-themed paintings. We look forward to providing an opportunity for visitors to further engage with this lesser-known side of Stellas oeuvre and one of the highlights of the Museums collection.
Born in southern Italy, Stella immigrated to New York in 1896. By 1913, he had established his reputation as a bold and innovative artist who conveyed the excitement of the city and modern life. In 1919, he turned away from more industrial subjects to focus on the powerful spiritual connection he felt with the natural world. His extended and impassioned embrace of nature as a subject offered spiritual renewal and respite from the visceral discomfort he experienced living in New York. These works hark back to the joy he felt in the light and open spaces of his native Italian countryside.
Although Stellas critical success remained fused to his identity as a modernist painter of urban icons, by 1920, the natural world came to dominate his artistic pursuits. A prolific creator of lyrical and exuberant depictions of flowers, plants and birds, Stella saw mystery and purity in nature and explored it by combining realism and fantasy with a modernist aesthetic. By focusing on his unique nature-based vocabulary and the context in which it developed, Visionary Nature will reconsider how this body of work relates to his career, revealing a surprising continuity between seemingly disparate subjects and exploring how these works are reflective of Stellas passionate spirituality.
Stella was considered a visionary, even among the most progressive artists of his day, said Stephanie Heydt, the Highs Margaret and Terry Stent curator of American art and lead exhibition curator. Much of his emotional and spiritual life centered on his relationship with nature, and the exhibition offers the unique opportunity to revisit Stella through this lens. He was an incredible draughtsman, and his drawings rival those of the old masters, but he also delighted in experimentation. His style ranged from abstraction to realism to the archaic with such unexpected results.
Visionary Nature begins with an introduction to Stellas early industrial works, showcasing selections from his famous Brooklyn Bridge series that demonstrate his technical skill while revealing an evolving presence of nature as a persistent feature in his art. The exhibition continues with The New Art, a section focused on Stellas experimentations following his discovery of modern art during a 1912 trip to Paris, ranging from prismatic Futurist paintings to playful Dada compositions in a variety of media. This section also includes several of Stellas masterful silverpoint drawings of botanical and portrait studies.
Another section in the exhibition, Italy: Origins, features artworks from Stellas frequent return visits to his homeland that demonstrate his continued exploration of his roots and of the places and themes that held meaning for him. These Italian-themed works are bright and light, filled with flora and fauna and layered in references to the spiritual and liturgical traditions he recalled from his youth. Additional galleries are dedicated to an extensive examination of Stellas epic painting Tree of My Life (1919) and related works, studies of plants and flowers from his frequent visits to the New York Botanical Garden, his intimate still-life compositions, and artworks inspired by his 1937 trip to Barbados a place that, like Italy, offered a refuge from modern city life and revived his spirits. The experience spurred a return to his beloved natural subjects, which remained his focus until his death in 1946.
Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, published by the High and the Brandywine, featuring essays by Heydt; Ara H. Merjian, professor of Italian studies at New York University; Ellen E. Roberts, curator of American art at the Norton Museum of Art; and Karli Wurzelbacher, Heckscher Museum of Art curator; and an annotated chronology by Audrey Lewis, associate curator at the Brandywine River Museum of Art.