by Timothy A. Eaton


The Flower Paintings of Joseph Stella

by Barbara Rose



Stella shared his rejection of theoretical and academic formulas with the most original American artists of his generation: Georgia

O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and John Marin. He also shared their uncompromising individualism and independence from academic rules: "No more that divine innocence whose loss we cannot miss enough, but formulas, schemes and so many pictures had I seen! I tried to forget all schooling of any sort, and see if I could reveal something that belonged to me and to me only," he wrote later.[2] Why he never showed with Stieglitz at 291 is a mystery. Perhaps it was because Italian, not English or French, which he learned later, was Joseph Stella's native language, or perhaps the explanation is the antipathy that the snobbish Berlin born Stieglitz had toward immigrants. In any event, in the circle of foreign-born modernists in New York, like Gaston Lachaise or expatriated Americans who had lived in Paris, like Man Ray, Stella felt comfortable.

After a few months at the Art Students League in Fa111898, Stella left, significantly because they would not allow him to draw flowers, which he preferred to figures, even female nudes. Instead he enrolled in the New York Art School on 57th Street, directed by William Merrit Chase, where he was a student for three years between 1899 and 1902. Chase confirmed Stella's anti-conformist attitudes and rejection of rules, theories and schools. And of course, Chase considered the floral still-life a worthy subject and enthusiastically painted flowers himself, but he believed it was the most difficult type of still-life. At the time, Robert Henri was the leading art teacher of the day training his students who became the Ash Can School to look for picturesque low life subjects in the streets. Henri taught genre and portrait painting derived from a superficial understanding of Dutch and Spanish painting in an illustrational style without real roots in the fine art tradition.

Needless to say, Henri did not instruct his manly, sports loving students to paint an effeminate subject like flowers, either. Henri's interpretation of Spanish and Dutch masters depended on the bravura of the Munich school, which made up in glittering surface highlights what it lacked in structural depth. Chase, on the other hand, stressed still-life based on the same sources, but not compromised by the tendency to look like popular illustration. Chase took his students to Holland and Spain to study the great baroque masters like Velazquez and Rembrandt, but Stella, like O'Keeffe, who was also a Chase student, never went on these trips. (Patrick Henry Bruce, on the other hand, left with Chase in 1903, and saw no reason to return to America.) [3] Chase was also the teacher of the leading Precisonist and Cubist Realists Sheeler, Demuth and Shamberg.

Stella did not see Europe again until he returned to Italy on the first of many trips back to his homeland. He missed his native country, its sunny climate and rich vegetation, terribly. Through the theme of flower painting and fantasy landscapes, Stella remained connected to his Neapolitan roots. Overcome by nostalgia, in January 1909, he sailed for Paris. The Parisian winter is not as cold as New York, but it is rainier and even grayer. Northern winters depressed Stella.[4] His frequent trips to warm tropical climates were necessary to lift the depression that the lack of light brought on, Light for Stella was more than a joy, it was a necessity. Soon he was headed south for Rome, Florence, Naples and Muro Lucano.

Study of the Renaissance masters confirmed his suspicion of the facile brushwork taught by Henri and even Chase. When he turned against visible brushstrokes and impasto, it was with a vengeance: "To avoid the superficial effects of virtuosity, I became very inquisitive in regard to the marvelous results obtained by the great masters of the past. After reading Ceninno Cennini, I took up glazing... with an under painting of tempera, like the Venetians...In color I searched for warmth, depth and transparency emphasized by that impasto enamel like that the ancients called smalto -- and in composition I tried to be very stern and severe, hating all the bric-brac and the charming bits of color that people want." [5]

For a time he imitated the technique that gave Venetian Renaissance painting luminosity by covering a tempera base with transparent layers of oil glazes. Stella's romance with glazing and the Old Master "look", which caused a Roman critic to mistake a painting he showed in Italy with a Venetian Renaissance work, was short lived. "Love of any sort ends in slavery: he concluded. "My motives were soon exhausted and I understood that glazing, though bewitching, and giving me some very fine results, was depriving me of that liberty of movement that a true artist must have." [6]

His talent brought him success both in Italy and in America. A genre painting of a standing figure, shown at International Exhibition in Rome in 1910, was bought by the Commune di Roma to decorate the Campidoglio. By then he had come to the realization that" when emotion does not seize the artist, the work of Art lack fire, Fire is the creator of Art~Fire generated by emotion. Technic alone produces nothing else but inanimate puppets."[7] He returned to New York; however, Walter Pach soon convinced him to leave again for a longer sojourn in Paris in 1911, because it was the cosmopolitan art center -- New York was not. Stella was overwhelmed. "For the first time," he recalled "I realized that there was such a thing I as modern art (not the "official") and as true f and great as the old one." [8]

Everybody who was anybody was in Paris in 1911. It was the anno mirabilis of modernism. Stella was euphoric. "At my arrival, Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism were in full swing," he remembered. "There was in the air the glamour of a battle, the holy battle raging for the assertion of a new century." [9] The unnatural, high-key hyperbolic fantasy color introduced by the Fauves excited him, conjuring up "visions resonant as explosions of joy, the vermilion, green, violet and orange high notes soaring upon the most luscious tonalities". [10] There are no specific floral images from this period; however, the Pointillist Spring Procession (Fig. 10) is an early example of the theme of Dionysiac rebirth and resurrection that became one of Stella's principle subjects.

To be in Paris on the eve of World War I was to be at the center of world art. Stella describes the progress made during this first Paris period: "I took up post~impressionism, not as a fad but as a necessity at the time...Technically speaking, the question of values and color interested me the most. The color of Matisse haunted me for months: I could feel in it a great force and a great vitality not dreamed of." However, the truth is that, as much as he loved Matisse, Stella's ideas about art and its content were firmly rooted in the fin-de-siecle, in Gauguin's and Rousseau's tropical fantasies and in the perfumed exoticism of Symbolist aesthetics.

"History proves that a true artist needs an art center for the full growth of his work" [11] he concluded. A great talker and arm~chair philosopher, Stella was perfectly suited to the cafe life of Paris. He met Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, and probably through them his hero, Matisse. He took a studio near Modigliani and befriended his impoverished fellow countryman. He remembers shielding the gaunt Modigliani behind his substantial bulk from his creditors, the grocers on the Boulevard Pasteur. He rejoiced that "anyone in Paris could meet and know the most prominent artists right in their studios, without the need of any red tape of introduction."[12]

Running into Picasso with his poet sidekick Max Jacob at Cirque Medrano, Stella congratulated him on his Blue Period paintings. (It is not clear whether at the time he was ignorant or critical of Picasso's Cubist works.) More importantly for the future of his art, he conversed with Matisse. " I was enchanted with the intense freshness of his alert color"[13] He had been sculpting, apparently in stone, but after two years he gave up the chisel to concentrate exclusively on painting. "My chief concern, then, in rivalry to the stunning revelations of the triumphing Parisian Impressionism, was to catch life flowing unaware with its spontaneous eloquent aspects, not stiffened or deadened by the pose."[14]

He considered Matisse a kindred soul because of " his keen perception of Cimabue and Giotto." [15] Actually, what Stella saw in the old masters was not at all what Matisse saw, but rather the vision of an untouchable celestial purity of the English pre-Raphaelites, whose work was popular in the United States as well. Stella does not mention that Matisse was also among the greatest flower painters in the history of art. Unfortunately, Stella did not join the classes Matisse held for a small group of expatriate modernists. Nor, by his own admission, did he ever really grasp Cezanne, perhaps because hard rocks rather than soft flowers were what Cezanne saw in nature. Indeed, the fundamental issues of cubist space and structure apparently escaped him, like most of the American Cubists; he confused stylization and streamlining for structural analysis.

Every Friday, he was sure to be on the terrace of the Montparnasse cafe, the Closerie des Lilas. There, he insinuated, he became friends of the modernist expatriates and of his fellow countrymen Boccioni, Severini, and Carra. There is no evidence he ever met the first two. Nevertheless, when he left to return to New York, it was their work, which he saw at the historic Futurist exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, that was uppermost in his mind when he painted futurist painting Battle of Lights, Coney Island. His only documented contact with Carra, whose later metaphysical style became one important source of Stella's figurative works of the Twenties, is a letter written in 1921: "Dear Carra," he wrote, "Although far away, I have always followed with interest and strong admiration your vigorous work as an artist and innovator, and I have always had hopes because of the great love I feel for my native land, for a show in New York of the bold new conquests made by you and your companions to the Great Glory of Italy." [16] In other words, Futurism was the expression of Italian patriotism.

In Paris, Stella became familiar with Baudelaire and the aesthetic doctrines of the Symbolist moment, which was as close as he ever came to having a coherent theory of art. It is important to realize that Stella's philosophy was formed by the dominant themes of the fin-de-siecle rather than by twentieth century thought. Baudelaire's definition of the modern artist as the painter of modern life turned him toward the new themes of the urban environment, which was the subject matter of Futurism as opposed to the hermetic, self referential studio world of Cubism.

Whether he saw Redon's work in Paris or at the Armory Show in 1913 after he returned to New York is immaterial. What is important is that Stella's first encounter with the modern spirit was not with the mechanistic gridded geometry of Cubism, but with romantic ecstasies of fin-de-siecle mysticism. He shared with William Morris and the pre~Raphaelites, through whose eyes he actually came to see the Italian primitives, a deep suspicion of the new values of the industrial age. Indeed, the visual evidence gives the impression that the mistakes he made regarding the relationship of modern art to the old masters, resulted from his interpretation of them in the light of the pre-Raphaelite doctrines. His ideas about color and the Symbolist palette similarly reflected synesthestic theories of Symbolism and the perfumed preciosity of the Salon de la Rose-Croix.

Another important source for Stella's thoughts about art was the vitalist philosophy of the Continental thinkers, the French Henri Bergson and the Italian Benedetto Croce. Bergson's believed that creative energy fed the elan vital, the life force, and that the principles of creation, fecundation, germination and fertility that ruled the natural world, ruled art as well. Writing of Edgar Allen Poe, the American ancestor of Baudelaire's Symbolism, Stella observed that Poe celebrated the" art generative forces derived from intuition and imagination." [17]

After a breathless year in Paris, Stella returned to America at the end of 1912. He was "thrilled to find America so rich with so many new motives to be translated into a new art."[18] The wording is significant because it indicates Stella's identification of art as transformation, transfiguration, and metamorphosis rather than the duplication of visible world. He had been converted into a Futurist Utopian, but not for long. At first he believed that the "futurists and cubists try to find a new sort of language and it is logical that this language at the start should be chaotic."[19] Stella was sure that Futurism would be realized in the new world, another reason to return to America where the future was fact not theory: "America which is so young and energetic and has the great futurist work first achieved by Walt Whitman."[20] According to Stella, "Our epoch is transitional but perhaps the more vital and important because of all the seeds of a gigantic futurist achievement are now being put into the soil."[21]

Stunned by this new world of steel and electricity, he painted Battle of Lights. Coney Island, Mardi Gras, his first self-consciously American subject. Mardi Gras, however, is a Catholic holiday not officially celebrated in Protestant America. The reference is to the atmosphere of celebration of the Italian carnevale, the ancient ancestor of the honky tonk American carnival with its ferris wheels and roller coasters, just as the street fairs of Little Italy, like the popular feast of San Gennaro, are a commercialized memory of the village festas in the old country. He is taken over by the "intense dynamic arabesque to convey in a hectic mood the surging crowd and the revolving machines... violent dangerous pleasures...vermilion carnal frenzy of the new bacchanal." [22]

However much Stella tried to embrace the American enthusiasm for hard steel and industrial subjects, he was a sensual European whose formal vocabulary remained tied to the voluptuous and unfolding organic forms of nature and not to the mechanical geometric shapes and structures of the industrial age. The conflict between the Virgin and Dynamo, the rural tradition and the machine age, defined by Henry Adams in his Autobiography, was for Stella never a real contest. His heart was with the Virgin. He could never worship the Amazon dynamo, the aggressive bitch goddess, the new age, as much as he tried to accommodate the liberated image of the new American goddess of strength and independence. He wrote of his admiration for her and how he "was struck by the conquests obtained in the everyday domain by the American woman."[23] This woman, however, was no flower; she was Villiers de la Ville Adam's Nouvelle Eve, the steely artificial Dynamo who Henry Adams saw replacing the Virgin as the new icon to be worshipped. Gaston Lachaise might reconcile the two in his Dynamo Mother, but Stella had to disguise the earth mother goddess. For an artist with an Italian mother, she was too potent and dangerous to be worshipped in her own right.

Stella considered his years between the Armory Show, where he showed several works, and the end of Word War I his "heroic period", despite the reality that he had to teach Italian in a Baptist seminary in the mornings to earn a living. In 1919-1920, he painted two of his most important works, Brooklyn Bridge and Tree of My Life, his first full-scale floral extravaganza was inspired by the awakening of Spring. (Fig. 2) Even a tree in Brooklyn brought back memories of the "blue distances of youth, golden serene light." Like the flower, the tree had symbolic meaning for Stella. It represented family and roots, much like the traditional images of genealogy to be found in the houses of old families in Italy. It was both the tree of knowledge that ended the innocence of Adam and Eve, as well as a symbolic ascending form that linked earth and sky. By then Stella was living in Williamsburg, the Brooklyn village recently revived by the influx of contemporary artists seeking cheap studios.

The image of Tree of My Life was revealed to him in a blazing epiphany: "One morning in April, to my amazement, against the infernal turmoil of a huge factory raging just in front of my house...a towering tree arose up in the sky with the glorious ascending vehemence of the rainbow after the tempest."[24] The rich symbolic painting recalls the Baudelairean theme of the sinful fleurs du mal: "A sonorous floral orchestration follows the phases of the ascension with the proper tunes...At the base my composition is marked by the vermilion of a flaming lily acting as the seal of the blood generating the robust trunk of the tree, robust but already contorted by the first snares laid down upon our path by the Genius of evil."[25]

Throughout his life, Stella continued to see the world in terms of Manichaean oppositions: evil vs. good, dark vs. light, incarceration vs. liberation, industry vs. nature, the geometric, mechanical and man-made, the basis of Cubism, vs. the organic, flowing and pulsating life-giving rhythms of the natural world that is the vitalist philosophical basis of Symbolism, theosophical cosmic consciousness, and art nouveau. His imagery was similarly dualistic. Stella managed to subsume both the Latin Catholic, as well as the American puritan ambivalence toward the theme of the eternal feminin. His image of woman was similarly split, divided between, on the one hand, the traditional immaculate and unobtaintainable mother-Madonna, whose attribute is the pure white lily, and on the other, the sinful sexuality of the pagan Venus, who rises from the sea like the Madonna ascending to heaven. Nor could the image of the chaste mother be reconciled with that of the erotic shrine.

Stella's mind was a chaotic blend of advanced and primitive concepts. His heraldic compositions reveal an archaic reliance on symmetry as an organizing principle. He is known as the only American Futurist, but in fact he painted a mere handful of Futurist works. In the end, his sympathies were with the backward agricultural society of his youth in Southern Italy, whose memory was held dear in the transplanted Neapolitan community of New York's Little Italy where the Neapolitan and Sicilian dialects are still spoken today. The monumental Gothic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge had the permanence of the cathedrals, but commercial excitement of Coney Island and Broadway did not nourish the soul like the Bay of Naples, Capri and Vesuvius.

His body might be in America, the home of those Olympian gods of literature he so admired, Whitman, Poe and Thoreau, but his heart was still in Italy, birthplace of the patriarchs of art, Giotto, Fra Angellco, Piero de la Francesca and Mantegna. (The latter he imagined as somewhere between an Old Testament God the Father and a Symbolist Medusa whose looks could cast the viewer to stone). The dominant patriarch of course, is "Father Giotto, Giotto, luminous and smiling name like a miraculous flower blooming out of the green fresh knowledge of our early school days."[25] Eventually, Stella would dedicate himself to imitating the spirit of Giotto, painting The Life of St. Francis in Assisi.

Walt Whitman's writings were his original revelation of the "candor of the world magically unsealed for us, virginal again."[26] Stella actually describes one of his mystical seizures: It is 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 forces. According to Stella, Whitman is the modern Prometheus unbound, intoxicating us with the "speed of his free verses" who "rouses and guards a new sacred fire of inspiration."

Thoreau, on the other hand, is the original creator of Virgilian intimacy. His admiration for Thoreau is a connection between Stella and the German Romantic tradition that is one of the sources for Transcendentalism. In his despair over the lack of spiritual and aesthetic values in America, Stella turned more and more inward, into the world of ecstatic visions that are the reality of visionaries. "Various and similar are the visions: he wrote. "Some gleam afar, star like tokens of incomparable treasures to be some day unsealed in their plenitude; some appear and disappear at the same time, but leaving in our memory an ache forever quivering with the music of their passage, and some reveal themselves in fragments to re-appear in their fullness, to be pursued and seized little by little by a patient, obdurate daily practice: NuUa dies sine linea [27] (No day without line.)"

On his return to New York, he desperately searched for this blessed contact with nature in the harsh environment of the city. He found it only intermittently and with difficulty. His solution was to recreate this unspoiled Eden in art. It was not easy. "From 1921 on I was swinging on a pendulum from one subject to the opposite one," he admitted.[28] His resolution came when he finally found paradise regained in the city in "the luxuriant garden of the Bronx." The Museum of Natural History, which he also visited regularly, as well as his home away from home, the Bronx Botanical Garden, provided Stella with the models from which to draw his exquisite flowers and plants. And although there was not necessarily sun in the glass-roofed gardens, at least there was the humid heat of Southern Italy. Happy in that artificial paradise, he drew flora transported from all the world in silverpoint, the difficult, precise Renaissance technique he had mastered. He recalls how he" was seized with a sensual thrill in cutting with sharpness of my silverpoint the terse purity of the lotus leaves or the matchless stem of a strange tropical plant." (Fig. 31) [28]

In 1922, Stella was once again in Naples where he painted a series of remarkable Madonnas. Back in Italy he was seized "with the same Mystical rapture that seized me in my early childhood after reading in Vasari's book about the holy marvels sung by Lippi and the divine Fra Angelico. Hellenic miracles of the Neapolitan Museum...kept me spellbound. I was in heavenly ecstasy visiting Pompei, Herculaneum, Paestum. And when in Capri I was shrouded by a miraculous blue flooding both sky and sea, all of a sudden sprung in front of me the myth of The Birth of Venus."[30]

Purchased by Carl Weeks, a wealthy mid-western businessman who had commissioned the Apotheosis of the Rose for his mansion in Des Moines, Iowa, The Birth of Venus permitted Stella to elaborate further on his theme of the symbolic floral fantasy. (Fig .3) Symbolist synesthesia remained a guiding principle throughout his life. The idea that colors have correspondences with symbolic meanings, and that they can be perceived as sounds, the basis of the first abstractions that freed painting from representation, remained with him even after he totally rejected abstract art as academic. Lest anyone miss his meaning, Stella outlined his symbolism quite literally: the edge of the mantle corresponded to the fiery violet at the top of the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, the light violet tinged with rose stood for the "distant Smile of Divine Capri", the legendary romantic island off the coast of Naples.

There were three greens, one soft like new grass, a second intense for the short pointed spiky plant leaves, and the third a dark green, " both sour and sweet, for the palms that fan out at the sides like mystic garlands."[31] Birds, too, were an important part of his imagery; the month of May is "shining and filled with the I sounds of warbling."[32] For Stella, the bird call represents freedom, a memory of the nightingale that lead him out of the gloom of the school room into the light of day as a child. (Fig. 16)

The first idea of painting Venus suddenly "arose in an apotheosis culminating in the radiant form of Venus... I was shaken with joy... Thrilled by the idea of possession, I was assaulted by a violent desire quickly to realize this idea in a painting... I tried every means to render my artistic ability worthy of the arduous task. I went to the sea. I breathed its free air. I watched and questioned every ripple of the waves. I went to the Museum of Natural History to be initiated by my ardent curiosity into the strange lore of the marine flora...To refresh and rebuild my chromatic vision I went to the flowers to learn the secret vibration of their colors...And Venus arose in all the glory of her prime as the culminating point of the spiral forces of the shell...the essence of a miraculous lotus. I selected the lotus as the source of Beauty (the myth of Venus is the myth of Beauty) because its the true echo of the rosy birth of dawn." [33]

Fish, too are present at the creation. Stella calls them the stars and flowers of the sea "ministers presiding and officiating at the festa, I imagined the fishes, those stars and flowers of the sea, as seraphs playing the music of their gliding movements in an oblique and asentional rhythm of joy on both sides of their Goddess (Fig. 4). ...My sky was drawn from the serenity of my youth in Italy, displaying a cloudless purity of blue and arched as a protecting benediction pouring flowers from its celestial gardens."[34]

Between 1926 and 1934, when he returned to live in the United States, Stella was mainly in Europe. Beautiful Brooklyn, home of the tree of life, now seemed horrible, "an icy, dark industrial inferno, with snow blackened with coal in the streets."[35] When in 1928 he sailed again for Paris, it was to make a long dreamed of three month pilgrimage to the art shrines of Northern Italy, cradle of the Renaissance: Florence, Siena, Perugia, Assisi, Ravenna. In Assisi, he had the great epiphany that changed his life, focusing his art on the healing and redemptive power of the floral motif. In the spirit of St. Francis, he found the purity and simplicity for which he yearned in nature.

He wrote of his sense of rebirth and renewal in the third person in his autobiographical notes. "After having removed himself from the sordid doings of the common daily life and having broken all evil contacts with infesting crowds liable to contaminate, he feels uplifted into superior regions where everything appears transfigured, spiritualized by supernatural light. It is the atmosphere of fire, the state of grace, the moment for the miracle, the moment encircling with a glorious halo the life of St. Francis. Suddenly the solitude is struck by the lightning of revelation and the artist is seized with ecstasy...ecstasy at a whole (series) of visions unfolding inexhaustible wealth of forms and colors through unlimited blue of Heaven. (Fig. 5) 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 forces."[36]

St. Francis, the innocent barefoot saint, had a special relationship with nature, represented in Giotto's great fresco cycle in the basilica named for him. The tenderness and humility of St. Francis, his direct connection to birds and flowers went straight to Stella's heart. He began to understand art not only as a celebratory rite, but also as a consecration, benediction, and a ritual as profound as that of communion. "A true artist," he claimed "in many ways resembles the ascetic who selects as an altar for his profound devotion the green remoteness of the woods. "Through contact with nature, the artist is cleansed and purified." "Stella understood, both intellectually and emotionally, the Dionysiac spring rites of reawakening and their relationship to the annual resurrection of nature. "I remember the festive colors of flowers, freshly cut and constantly renewed, cordon every spot in which a miracle by Saint Francis and Saint Clare took place."[37]

Rededicating himself to the precision and monumentality of the Renaissance masters he claimed that "to avoid careless facility, I dig my roots obstinately, stubbornly in the crude untaught line buried in the living flesh of the primitives... I dedicate my ardent wish to draw with all the precision possible, using the inflexible media of silverpoint and goldpoint that reveal instantly the clearest graphic eloquence"[38] (Fig. 6) For Stella, line was, as it had been for Ingres and the pre~Raphaelites, the crucial element in art. In the linear style of the Florentine Renaissance, he found the purity and "diamond like" crystalline hardness he sought. Renaissance engravings, also on view at the Uffizzi, were another source for Stella's later figurative style. He remembers "a clear engraving, a full, complete, resonant shape, but lacking any volume, with its profile of sharp points incised on the pure blue of the Dawn of our life."[39]

In many ways his razor sharp contours recall the incised line of engraving, which represented for Stella another example of purity and clarity of expression. The similarity of the structure of Stella's Madonnas, and often of his flowers and landscapes as well, to the archaic frontality of the religious icon, suggests that they too are devotional objects, shrines and altars. (Fig. 20, 29, 37) Their hieratic stiffness and simplicity recalls that of the traditional images of the Madonna and the Crucifixion as they are carried through the streets of villages like Muro Lucano on feast days or jestas. They also recall (as well) the Italian folk custom of creating floral displays in the streets for local holidays, as well as using flowers as religious offerings.

To understand Stella's seemingly mysterious iconography, one has only to consult descriptions of the Immaculate Conception: the virginal yet still fertile blossom, the Purissima. Like Christ, art is conceived from an immaculate source. In this connection, painting and drawing flowers becomes a calming meditation on purity and a rededication to the priestly vocation of art.

The hard-edge linear style that Stella developed in the Twenties must also be seen within the larger context of the retour a la raison of the war weary West-the conservative, figurative reaction against the Cubist and Futurist splintering of forms, if not against abstraction and distortion in general, that took place between the two world wars. No one would ever accuse Stella of being a realist, but neither was he drawn to pure abstraction. He shared the Precisionists' renunciation of bravura painting as academic; yet, however I clean his surfaces and precise his lines, they never suggest the slickness of photography, the inspiration for the hard edges, simplification and smooth anonymous surfaces of Precisionism.

Stella's antagonism to reproduction and to the machine made as opposed to the hand-made caused him to reject "progress". He knew well that "The best mechanical reproductions are unable to translate that indefinable something we call genius."[40] Despite his disdain for mechanical reproduction, he cherished a color plate of Piero della Francesca's profile portrait of Isabella d'Este. The jeweled crown of the Duchess of Urbino suggested to him the strange vegetation on the crest of a hill. He saw her pallor was set off by her headdress, which "comes together at base of skull, circles ears, with folds like a coiled viscera." He became a specialist of the profile portrait while his contemporary, John Graham, looked to the frontal Renaissance portrait for the prototype of his version of the fatal woman. (Fig. 19, 21)

What differentiates Joseph Stella from the American modernists is that he lived in day to day direct contact with the old masters. They were as ubiquitous in Italy as billboards and advertising in the United States. Like Hartley and O'Keeffe, who also came to hate the city, Stella sought freshness in naive art, folk art, and the art of children. Their search for immaculate purity ironically coincided with the demands for sexual liberation promulgated by D. H. Lawrence, who came to the United States to promote his Jungian doctrine in 1922, leaving a legacy of upper class Bohemianism in Taos and Santa Fe.


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