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  • Author or Editor: Herbert R. Hartel Jr. x
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Joseph Stella is best known today as one of the first modernist painters in the United States. He created colorful Cubist-Futurist inspired paintings of modern urban structures and spaces, especially the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island. He occasionally did some paintings and drawings of Christian subjects, most often of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and more frequently in the late-1910s and 1920s, but these remain little-known and have received scant scholarly attention. Stylistically, they are rooted in a complex fusion of Symbolism, Cubism, and Futurism and often reflect the post-World War I return to greater verisimilitude and clear, solid forms and believable spaces. These works reveal Stella’s complex spirituality and how he reconnected to his Roman Catholic, Italian roots and reconciled them with American urban, industrial, and secular values. Most of them are complex syntheses of his Christian piety and sexual desires and needs. Although limited in quantity and scope, some writings by Stella and those who knew him suggest his sexual concerns were often intensely lustful and frenzied. Therefore his paintings of the Madonna usually show her as spiritually pure and sensuously arousing. A few paintings, particular from his last years and which do not depict female figures, are more introspective and tranquil in mood and attitude. Stella’s paintings of Christian subjects are an intriguing case study of how modernists returned to traditional religious themes and depicted them in ways that combined the old and the new, the modernist and the more traditionally representational, and the urban and industrial twentieth century with pre-modern life.

In: Religion and the Arts