Artist Joseph Stella Painted Nature in Vibrant Color

Cities weren’t the only subject that fascinated this acclaimed Futurist

Opener - Flowers
Flowers, Italy, Joseph Stella, oil on canvas, circa 1930. The artist began painting flowers, he said, “to learn the secret of the vibration of their colors.” Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona, GIft of Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Marshall, 1964.20, Digital Image ©Phoenix Art Museum. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Ken Howie

He famously captured industrial America—the Brooklyn Bridge, Pittsburgh’s steel mills—with his monumental canvases. But the painter Joseph Stella (1877-1946) looked to nature for respite, escaping his Manhattan studio to visit the New York Botanical Garden and to paint in southern Italy, where he grew up. “My devout wish,” the artist wrote, “[is] that my every working day might begin and end—as a good omen—with the light, gay painting of a flower.”

The joy Stella found in flowers is apparent throughout a new show that opens this month at Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Museum of Art, which co-organized it with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It’s the first major exhibition to focus on Stella’s nature paintings—and the artist’s first big show in nearly 30 years. The Brandywine’s Audrey Lewis hopes the botanical subjects prove as restorative for viewers as they were for their creator. “There’s still beauty in the world, and Stella really managed to capture that.”

Swans (Night) by Joseph Stella, pastel and charcoal on paper, c.1924-1930 Courtesy of Adelson Galleries
The Virgin
The Virgin, oil on canvas, 1926 Brooklyn Museum, gift of Adolph Lewisohn, 28.207 Digital image © Brooklyn Museum
Two Pink Water Lilies, silverpoint and crayon on paper, 1943 Digital image courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum of Art

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This article is a selection from the June 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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