Joseph Stella: Madonnas & Related Work

by Irma B. Jaffe



The relationship between this pair of paintings -- one an imposing symbol of technical energy, the other a majestic symbol of spiritual energy -- is suggestive. The conjunction of The Virgin and the soaring steel bridge brings to mind Henry Adams' ''The Virgin and the Dynamo." This widely read meditation on the spiritual energy that built cathedrals and drove the motors of modern life was published in 1918, the year in which Stella painted his first version of the Brooklyn Bridge, now in the Yale University Art Gallery. As Adams, visiting the Paris World's Fair of 1889, contemplated the great gallery of machines, "he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before the silent and infinite force."[4]

Stella was an avid reader and it is intriguing to speculate that Adams' conflation of mechanical and religious forces might have contributed in a large or small way to the artist's turn from industrial imagery to that of the Madonna, as shown in the present exhibition.

Stella's Madonna paintings were all executed during the 1920s, a decade that saw him in Italy and France more than in the United States. This circumstance also played a role in his taking up of the theme of the Madonna. Returning to his native land in 1922 he found there the revival of interest in traditional Italian form in reaction against the dynamism of Futurism. It was, in fact, a leading Futurist of the previous decade, Carlo Carra, who spearheaded the rediscovery of Giotto and Piero della Francesca, and with Giorgio di Chirico developed Pittura Metafisica, expressed formally as an archaizing idealism that characterized much of Italian painting for two decades. Stella's admiration for Carra is recorded in a letter of 1920, in which he wrote, ''1 have always followed with interest and strong admiration your vigorous work as an artist and innovator." He hoped New York would have an opportunity to see "the brave new conquests made by you and your companions to the Glory of Italy." [5]

Stella, however, was not interested in the metaphysical aspects of the new Italian painting; what appealed to him was the exotic flavor of archaic form and pattern. It is not irrelevant to recall that just at this time, in the United States, there appeared in mainstream art strong interest in Native American art as reflected in Marsden Hartley's Southwest paintings. Also significant for understanding the myriad sources of Stella's art was the taste for Orientalizing that was probably in large measure due to the presence in New York of Ananda Coomaraswamy, with whom Stella was acquainted. Katherine Dreier, Stella's friend and patron, traveled to China in 1922, and wrote him from Peking that she was studying Chinese brushwork. The hieratic flatness and decorativeness of Oriental design, and its often mystical atmosphere, surely appealed to Joseph Stella's love of the mystical, the symbolic, and the ornamental.

In the United States Stella had already begun to move in the direction of simplified form with his "Nature Lyrics," such as The Heron. Indeed, many major artists in Europe had begun around 1916 to prefer broad, uncluttered surfaces. Amedee Ozenfant and Pierre Jeanneret published their influential Purist theories of clarification of form in their Après Ie Cubism of 1918. In Italy in 1922 he was thus ready to appropriate the form -- archaizing idealism -- while disregarding the proto-Surrealist content of Pittura Metafisica, the movement established by Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carra. Archaizing idealism can be seen as an important influence in all of Stella's work from about 1922 into the 1930s. Given the problem of religious imagery for an artist who wanted to be identified with modernism, Stella's synthesis of the decorative in Oriental art, the iconic in archaic art, and the representational in Southern Italian folk art was an extraordinarily effective solution for his Madonna paintings, as is evident in The Virgin of the Rose and Lily. It can be dated to 1922 [6] on the basis of the Virgin's facial resemblance to The Virgin in the Brooklyn Museum. This is documented in Stella's notes titled Discovery, in which he writes "In 1922 I went to Naples and I was so happy to paint there the Vergin [sic] donated by Adolphe Lewisohn to the Brooklyn Museum." [7]

As in Piero, but more archaized, three dimensional form is abstracted within closed contours in The Virgin of the Rose and Lily. Shown close up in the picture plane as a standing figure at three-quarters length, her hands crossed over her breast, the Virgin is turned slightly toward the left margin. The geometrical treatment of her haloed head, a perfect egg shape set on a long cylindrical neck, also reminds one of Piero, while the features call to mind Amedeo Modigliani's female faces with arched eyebrows, the lines of which continue with no break to become the outline of the nose. [8] The egg/oval motif is repeated in the veil, from the edge of which a narrow band of copper-colored hair is visible, and opened symbolically is the cape as it flows down both sides of her Brancusi-like figure. On the central axis of the figure of the Virgin, at the base of her neck, a wide open rose, symbol of the Madonna, rhymes coloristically with the Virgin's symbolically closed lips.

An extraordinary interplay of curves relates the Madonna to the very large pure white lily, a widely recognized symbol of her chastity. [9] In the lower right hand corner of the painting a young woman, represented bust-length in profile, kneels reverently, her hands clasped in prayer as she gazes up at the Virgin. Oversized fruits and flowers with birds perched on their stems frame the painting along the left and right sides. Behind the figure of the Virgin, the deep blue of the Bay of Naples stretches to Vesuvius.

Although The Brooklyn Museum's Virgin has a far more decorated surface than The Virgin of the Rose and Lily, both pictures could be dated to the same year since Stella seems to have employed the same model for both. However, it is possible that he used his painting of 1922 as a model for a painting executed in 1926 or 1927.

Stella returned to Italy in 1926 and spent about two years abroad. He had acquired a multi-millionaire patron in 1925, Carl Weeks, who was building a Gothic-Tudor mansion in Des Moines, Iowa. Weeks' Salisbury House incorporated parts from a sixteenth-century home in Salisbury, England. For one of the rooms in the new house he commissioned Stella to paint a panel based on a poem by William Morris. "You know where it goes...," Weeks wrote the artist, "you have the symphony of it in your soul and it will come out a masterpiece." Stella took advantage of the opportunity to give free play to the mysticism, symbolism, and love of decoration that were so much a part of his Southern Italian origins. The result was The Apotheosis of the Rose.


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