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Joseph Stella

The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme


Joseph Stella, The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme, 1939  42.15
Joseph Stella, The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme, 1939. Oil on canvas, 70 × 42 in. (177.8 × 106.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase  42.15 For Teachers

about this work

To Italian-born Joseph Stella, who immigrated to New York at the age of nineteen, New York City was a nexus of frenetic, form-shattering power. In the engineering marvel of the Brooklyn Bridge, which he first depicted in 1918 and returned to throughout his career, he found a contemporary technological monument that embodied the modern human spirit. Here, Stella portrays the bridge with a linear dynamism borrowed from Italian Futurism. He captures the dizzying height and awesome scale of the bridge from a series of fractured perspectives, combining dramatic views of radiating cables, stone masonry, cityscapes, and night sky. The large scale of the work—it is nearly six feet tall—conjures a Renaissance altar, while the Gothic style of the massive pointed arches evokes medieval churches. By combining contemporary architecture and historical allusions, Stella transformed the Brooklyn Bridge into a twentieth-century symbol of divinity, the quintessence of modern life and the Machine Age. 


Audio guide stop for Joseph Stella,The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme, 1939

look closer

Imagine you have just stepped into this painting. Where are you? 

What do you see? 

What sounds might you hear? 

Look at the arches of the bridge. Have you ever seen arches like that before? Where?


For Joseph Stella, the Brooklyn Bridge was a monument of modern America. Its large towers, glowing lights, and technical ingenuity marked a great moment in New York history, and demonstrated people’s ability to transform their environment through the use of technology.

First, discuss the concept of monuments with your class. Why does Stella consider the Brooklyn Bridge as a monument? What are monuments they know? Where are monuments usually found? What is their purpose?

Ask students to locate and document different monuments in their neighborhood. Give students a copy of a neighborhood map. Each time they find a monument, have them circle its location on their map and record the following information in their notebooks or journals: Where is this monument? Was it easy to find and/or see from a distance? Why or why not? What event or person does it document? What information does the monument provide? Have students make sketches of the monuments they find.

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