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Joseph Stella was one of the first American artists to identify and exalt the burgeoning structures and technology of urban modernity in the early decades of the twentieth century. After immigrating to New York in 1896 from the small Italian village of Muro Locano, Stella studied painting at the Art Students League and the New York School of Art between 1897 and 1900. He soon began depicting the streets and inhabitants near his apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, producing vivid drawings that were published in 1905 in the periodical The Outlook. In 1908, The Survey, a social reform journal, commissioned Stella to make a series of drawings of the Pittsburgh industrial scene; the resulting studies of miners and mining towns foreshadowed his later interest in industrial landscapes.
While on an extended sojourn in Italy and France from 1909 to 1912, Stella met many European modernists, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Carlo Carrà, an Italian Futurist. The work of Carrà and his Futurist colleagues Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini, which Stella saw in a 1912 exhibition in Paris, would inspire Stella’s fascination with modern industry and his interest in expressing a sense of motion and dynamism. After his return to the United States in 1912, Stella began depicting New York City’s skyscrapers, roadways, and bridges; the Brooklyn Bridge, which he painted numerous times between 1917 and 1941, became his most iconic subject. With their towering, majestic, and interpenetrating forms, Stella’s paintings fuse the abstract styles of the European avant-garde with quintessential American subject matter to glorify the mechanical aspects of modern life. The sharp contours, planar forms, and ray lines of Stella’s architectural and industrial images align his work with the Precisionist paintings of artists such as Charles Sheeler and Elsie Driggs.
Stella’s early Futurist paintings were shown in various places in New York, including the Armory Show in 1913 and at the Société Anonyme, of which he was a charter member. By 1922, he had renounced his Futurist painting theories. For the next two decades, he moved between New York, Paris, and Italy, producing landscapes, nudes, and other representational works marked by a stylized, Renaissance-inspired aesthetic and fanciful, quasi-Symbolist imagery.