Defying Classification: Joseph Stella


In memory of Joseph Stella (1877-1946), who died 62 years ago yesterday, today's post features the Italian-born painter at the request of reader Lauren M. With an oeuvre that spans a wide range of styles, as evidenced by two of his paintings, "The Virgin" (left) and "Brooklyn Bridge" (right), Stella "belongs to no school or movement, [and] defies classification."

1. In the early 1900s, Joseph Stella was commissioned to illustrate a series of articles on the "conditions of life and labor of wage-earners of the American steel district." He produced 100 drawings, but only one third of those were published in The Pittsburgh Survey. A former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, John Baur, remarked of the drawings that "in sheer technical brilliance they surpass anything of the kind in America at that time."

2. Supposedly, Stella had a "raging temper." One story goes that he clubbed a man—to the point of unconsciousness—with his cane because he was so enraged that he hadn't been invited to exhibit with the 38 "Artistes Americains Moderne de Paris" in 1931.

3. Stella was probably not the most attractive man around; describing him, a friend wrote, ""¦his huge dome pierced by two black mobile eyes of liquid lava"¦ a stubby nose and a large, articulate mouth"¦ all painted on a large, robust neck firmly attached to a dynamic torso"¦" Referencing Stella's self-portraits, Stephen May wrote that he "looks like a cross among Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, and Fiorello LaGuardia." (Check this photo of Stella and Marcel Duchamp to judge for yourself.)

4. To Stella, the Brooklyn Bridge was "a shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America." He would sometimes stand on the bridge late at night, listening to the sounds of the city and feeling "crushed by the mountainous black impenetrability of the skyscrapers" but also as if he were "on the threshold of a new religion or in the presence of a new divinity." He so captured the feel of the bridge that a critic wrote that Stella's painting seemed "more real, more true than a literal transcription of the bridge could be."

Larger versions of "The Virgin" and "Brooklyn Bridge" are available. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.