Joseph Stella, a modernist who explored numerous styles and subjects, is best known for his images of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was born in Muro Lucano, Italy in 1877. After growing up in Europe, he came to the United States in 1896 to study medicine. However, Stella quickly abandoned his medical studies and turned instead to art, studying with William Merritt Chase at the New York School of Art. From 1905 to 1909 he worked as an illustrator, publishing his realist drawings in magazines. A remarkable draftsman, he made drawings throughout the various phases of his career.
Stella began as an academic realist, but his mature work is in a modernist style, notable for its sweeping and dynamic lines. Stella returned to visit Italy in 1909 and became associated with the Italian Futurists; he began to incorporate Futurist principles into his art. The Armory Show of 1913, in which Stella participated, may have provided him with greater impetus to experiment with modernist styles.
In New York during the 1920s, Stella became fascinated with the geometric quality of the architecture of Lower Manhattan. In these works he assimilated the elements of Cubism and Futurism (Cubo-Futurist style). In his best-known work, he shows his fascination with the sweeping lines of the Brooklyn Bridge, a motif he used continuously throughout his career.
Stella’s depictions of the Brooklyn Bridge feature the diagonal cables that sweep downward forcefully, providing directional energy. While these dynamic renderings of the Bridge suggest the excitement and motion of modern life, in Stella’s hands the image of the Bridge also becomes a powerful icon of stability and solidarity.
In the 1930s, Stella worked on the Federal Art Project and later traveled to Europe, North Africa, and the West Indies, locations that inspired him to work in various modes. He moved from one style to the next, from realism to abstraction to surrealism. He executed abstract city themes, religious images, botanical and nature studies, erotic and steamy Caribbean landscapes, and colorful still-lifes of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. His strong draftsmanship is evident throughout the many kinds of images that he continued to make over the years.