Self-Portrait, early 1940s
Watercolor on wove paper
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas Purchase with funds provided by Ruth Carter Stevenson
Throughout his career, Joseph Stella executed many self-portraits. While his earlier self-portraits seem to indicate he was merely using himself as a model, his later ones are more introspective and show signs of his deteriorating health. In this self-portrait, an aging Stella shows himself in profile—a format typical in Italian Renaissance portraits and one that he used often. His focused stare combined with a furrowed brow and flared nostrils indicate deep concentration about something viewers cannot see. The watercolor medium mimics the artist’s hunched shoulders and slouchy posture as evidenced by the cascading drips and concentrations of color that pool throughout the image.
Joseph Stella (1877–1946) claimed that beyond his classical education as a youth in his hometown of Muro Lucano, Italy, his real artistic study took place on the streets of New York City, where he lived after 1896. He drew relentlessly, sketching people in parks, on elevated trains, and in the public library. He dismissed as irrelevant his three years of study with William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), though Chase reinforced Stella’s strongest inclinations: his respect for the Italian Renaissance artists and his love of drawing.
In drawing fellow immigrants, Stella produced vivid images of their suffering; his first published work appeared in social-reform weeklies. Illustrations for The Pittsburgh Survey, which he made in 1908 with the photographer Lewis Hine, include depictions of men in Pittsburgh’s steel mills. These works are timeless comments on human endurance and exploitation. Revisiting Europe in 1909, Stella was introduced to Italian Futurism. Futurists created works of art based on modern life and technology, using artistic conventions to connote speed and machine-like configurations. Today Stella is known as the movement’s first great exponent in America. He found New York’s kaleidoscopic scene perfectly suited to his new interest in color and dynamic composition. Yet by 1920 his modernist impulse gave way to a mystical absorption in nature. Silverpoint became his favorite medium as he focused on the delicate beauty of plants and birds. Silverpoint is the technique of drawing a pointed rod of silver across paper that has been specially coated with white pigment. It leaves minute particles of the metal embedded in the paper surface, producing a grayish line that darkens as the silver tarnishes.
Throughout his career he explored themes from the symbolic to the commonplace. Stella suffered a heart attack and died a year after surviving a near fatal injury sustained from falling down an open elevator shaft while serving as a judge for the 1945 exhibition Portrait of America held at Rockefeller Center in New York City, New York.