Joseph Stella was a visionary artist who painted what he saw, an idiosyncratic and individual experience of his time and place. He arrived in New York in 1896, part of a wave of Italian immigrants from poverty-stricken Southern Italy. From the beginning, Joseph Stella was an outsider. He was of the Italian-American community, but did not share its overwhelming poverty and general lack of education. He went back to Italy on several occasions, but was no longer an Italian. His art incorporated many influences. At various times his work echoed the concerns and techniques of the so-called Ashcan School, of New York Dada, of Futurism and Cubism, among others. These are all legitimate influences, but Stella never totally committed himself to any one group. He was a convivial, but ultimately solitary figure, with a lifelong mistrust of any authority external to his own personal mandate. He was in Europe during the time that Alfred Stieglitz established his 291 Gallery. When Stella returned, he joined the international coterie of artists who gathered at the West Side apartment of the art patron Conrad Arensberg, and it was here that Stella became close friends with the French artiste-provacateur, Marcel Duchamp.
Stella was nineteen when he arrived in America. In the early years of the century, he studied at the Art Students League, and with William Merritt Chase, under whose tutelage he received rigorous training as a draftsman. His love of line, and his mastery of its techniques, is apparent early in his career in the illustrations he made for various social reform journals. Stella, whose later work as a colorist is breathtakingly lush, never felt obliged to choose between line and color. He drew throughout his career, and unlike other modernists, whose work evolved inexorably to more and more abstract form, Stella freely reverted to earlier realist modes of representation whenever it suited him. This was because, in fact, his “realist” work was not “true to nature,” but true to Stella’s own unique interpretation.
In 1926, Stella left for a two-year sojourn to Italy, where he set to work on a decorative commission for Carl Weeks, a noted collector from Iowa. He remained abroad for eight years, coming back to America only once, in 1928. During this time, he stayed principally in Paris, but made several trips to Italy, visiting Siena, Florence, and Naples, among other cities. Inspired by the images he saw as he traveled throughout Southern Italy, Stella adopted the color and form of Italian folk images—particularly of the Madonna—to his own, modernist style. Stella painted several pictures of the Madonna during this period, characterized by simplified, almost primitive reduction in form allied with a forceful use of rich color. Color, for Stella, was clearly as symbolic as the formal elements of the picture, embodying his sensual impressions of the spiritual aspects of nature and the landscape.