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Avery Galleries

Joseph Stella

Vesuvius III

Signed lower right: Joseph Stella

10 x 12 inches (25.4 x 30.5 cm)


Born in Italy, Joseph Stella immigrated to New York City at the age of nineteen and went on to become one of America’s foremost modernist painters. He remained deeply loyal to his Italian heritage and was often torn between his love for both countries. As one Italian writer remarked, “Two instincts clash in him, two contrasting elements, two passions; two homelands crowd his creative thought."1 No doubt it was this very combination of cultures that enabled Stella to develop such a truly individual artistic style.

Stella showed an early passion and aptitude for art, and he enrolled at the New York School of Art in 1897, studying under William Merritt Chase. He was initially fascinated by the work of the Old Masters, and his early drawings demonstrate how well he adopted their techniques. In 1909, he was finally able to return to Italy for the first time in thirteen years, and he wrote in his typically effusive style, “What a tremor of joy erupted at last!"2 Stella spent two years in Italy, basking in the beauty of his homeland and immersing himself in the art of the Italian Renaissance. However in 1911, he set out for Paris where he was dazzled by the modernist art scene and inspired by its “hyperbolic chromatic wealth."3 Stella returned to the United States determined to emulate the art of his time, however his first efforts revealed how reluctant he was to let go of illusionistic space and the influence of his Italian ancestors. Stella wrestled with this dilemma for much of his career, but he ultimately developed his own distinctive approach to painting, which reflected his conclusion that art should be free of “any bondage of time and locality."4

Nonetheless, the Italian landscape continued to exert a strong influence over his work, and he produced numerous representations of it, including several paintings of Mount Vesuvius. Stella described this scenery in rapturous language: “The mountains are a perpetual source of profound feelings and lofty ideas. Over their immovable profiles, drawn with firmness and incisive precision . . . the airy, agile clouds move incessantly as though holding and caressing them in ever changing shapes of dream and fantasy across the immense blue loom of the sky."5 In this work, Stella transforms these sentiments into the visual poetry of painting; the billowing clouds merge inextricably with the top of the mountain, which is tinged with gradations of blue and purple. Moreover, he interprets the scene with a simplicity and flatness that feels reminiscent of both the stark realism of Rockwell Kent and the primitive power of early Italian fresco painting. Vesuvius III captures Stella’s undying love for his homeland filtered through his unique perspective as a modern expatriate artist.

1 Quoted in Barbara Haskell, Joseph Stella (1994), p. 9.

2 Joseph Stella quoted in ibid, p. 27.

3 Ibid, p. 31.

4 Ibid, p. 140.

5 Ibid, p. 217.