Joseph Stella (1877-1946)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
Joseph Stella (1877-1946)

Tree of My Life

Joseph Stella (1877-1946)
Tree of My Life
signed 'Joseph Stella' (lower right)
oil on canvas
84 x 76 in. (213.4 x 193 cm.)
Painted in 1919.
The artist.
[With]Valentine Dudensing Gallery, New York.
Carl Weeks, Des Moines, Iowa, acquired from the above, 1925.
Salisbury House, Des Moines, Iowa, gift of the above.
Iowa State Education Association, acquired from the above, 1954.
Christie's, New York, 5 December 1986, lot 288, sold by the above.
Acquired by the late owner from the above.
“Notes on Current Art; Paintings by Joseph Stella,” New York Times, April 4, 1920, p. XX6.
H.E. Field, "Joseph Stella," The Arts, August-September 1921, p. 25.
"Comment on the Arts," The Arts, May 1921, p. 34.
M. Breuning, “About Artists and Their Work,” New York Evening Post, April 11, 1925, p. 11.
“The World of Art: Academy Exhibition and Others,” New York Times, April 12, 1925, p. SM18.
“Art,” The New Yorker, April 18, 1925, p. 17.
J. Stella, "New York," Transition, vols. 16-17, June 1929, pp. 86-88.
A. Lancellotti, "Un Pittore di Avanguardia: Giuseppe Stella," Emporium, vol. 71, no. 422, February 1930, pp. 70, 73, illustrated.
J. Stella, "Discovery of America: Autobiographical Notes," Art News, vol. 59, no. 7, November 1960, p. 27.
N. Baldwin, "Stella," Des Moines Register, April 18, 1970.
I.B. Jaffe, Joseph Stella, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1970, pp. 83-87, 98, 105, 116, 132, 148-49, 184, 250n13, fig. 59, frontispiece illustration.
J. Baur, Joseph Stella, New York, 1971, pp. 20, 46-47, illustrated.
J. Wilmerding, The Genius of American Painting, London, 1973, pp. 228-29, illustrated.
J.G. Sweeney, Themes in American Painting, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1977, p. 129, pl. 62, illustrated.
J. Glaubinger, "Two Drawings by Joseph Stella," Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 70, no. 10, December 1983, pp. 385, 391, fig. 6, illustrated.
J. Zilczer, Joseph Stella: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Collection, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1983, p. 15.
E.O. Wilson, Biophilia, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1984, cover illustration.
Phoenix Art Museum, Collecting: Phoenix Art Museum, 1957-1984, Phoenix, Arizona, 1984, p. 20.
R. Reif, "Futurist Painting by Joseph Stella," The New York Times, December 5, 1986, p. C29.
"Joseph Stella's 'Tree' Sells for Record Price," The New York Times, December 6, 1986, p. 10.
"Rare Joseph Stella Canvas Brings $2.2 Million," The ARTnewsletter, vol. 12, no. 9, December 23, 1986, p. 2.
T. Segal, "At What Price Art? The Answer is High, Very High," Business Week, December 29, 1986, p. 136.
"New York, Christie's," Art+Auction, February 1987, p. 103, illustrated.
"Stella Stars at Auction," Art News, February 1987, p. 17.
Wilderness, Spring 1987, illustrated.
Richard York Gallery, Joseph Stella: The Tropics, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1988, pp. 18, 21-22, illustrated.
G. Norman, “Art Exhibitions and Art Sales,” 1988 Britannica Book of the Year, Chicago, Illinois, 1988, p. 135.
St. Louis Art Museum, Bulletin, St. Louis, Missouri, 1989, p. 58.
Insight and Inspiration, II: The Italian Presence in American Art: 1860-1920, New York, 1989, illustrated.
B. Millhouse, et al., American Originals: Selections from Reynolda House, Museum of American Art, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1990, p. 114n2.
J. Moser, Visual Poetry: The Drawings of Joseph Stella, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1990, pp. 89, 95, fig. 91, illustrated.
E.R. Firestone, "Incursions of Modern Art in the Regionalist Heartland," The Palimpsest, vol. 73, no. 2, Fall 1991, p. 153, illustrated.
S.C. Larsen, Bold Strokes and Quiet Gestures: 20th-Century Drawings and Watercolors from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, 1992, pp. 32-33, 102.
J. Moser, "The Collages of Joseph Stella," American Art, Summer 1992, p. 61.
Snyder Fine Art, Joseph Stella's Madonnas, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1993, pp. 17-18.
I.B. Jaffe, Joseph Stella's Symbolism, San Francisco, California, 1994, p. 14, no. 14, back cover illustration.
ARTnews, vol. 93, 1994, p. 37.
J.E. Kaufman, "Rejuvenating Joseph Stella's Market," ARTnewsletter, vol. 19, no. 16, April 5, 1994, p. 3.
H. Cotter, "Painterly Synthesis of a Wanderer's Life," The New York Times, April 22, 1994, p. B7.
J. E. Kaufman, "Not Frank Stella's Father," Art News, Summer 1994, p. 37.
Richard York Gallery, Modernism at the Salons of America, 1922-1936, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1995, p. 22.
B. Rose, Joseph Stella: Flora, exhibition catalogue, West Palm Beach, Florida, 1997, pp. 11-13, 57, fig. 2, illustrated.
Kresge Art Museum Bulletin, East Lansing, Michigan, 1999, illustrated.
S.M. Peloquin, "Lifework in Occupational Therapy: Advanced Career Choices," Occupational Therapy: Principles and Practice, Baltimore, Maryland, 2000, p. 219.
P. Pinson, et al., The Art of Walter Anderson, Jackson, Mississippi, 2003, pp. 56-57, fig. 7, illustrated.
J. Dillenberger, A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities: The Visual Arts and the Church, Eugene, Oregon, 2004, pp. 137, 265.
J. Verheul, Dreams of Paradise, Visions of Apocalypse: Utopia and Dystopia in American Culture, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2004, p. 54.
C.T. Butler, et al., Lines of Discovery: 225 Years of American Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Columbus, Georgia, 2006, p. 101.
R.L. Bohan, Looking Into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850-1920, University Park, Pennsylvania, 2006, p. 205.
D. Ngo, ed., Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection + Residence, San Francisco, California, 2006, n.p., illustrated.
B. Ebsworth, A World of Possibility: An Autobiography, Hunts Point, Washington, 2012, p. 169.
S.J. LaGumina, et al., The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2013, n.p.
New York, Bourgeois Galleries, Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Pastels, Drawings, Silverpoints and Watercolors by Joseph Stella, March 27-April 24, 1920, frontispiece illustration (as L'Arbre de ma vie).
New York, American Art Association, The Salons of America, Spring Salon, May 21-June 9, 1923, no. 276.
New York, Dudensing Galleries, April 1925.
Des Moines, Iowa, City Library Gallery Des Moines and Association of Fine Art, Exhibition of Paintings by Joseph Stella, May 9-June 1, 1926, no. 3.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Joseph Stella, October 2-November 4, 1963, pp. 16, 48, no. 14.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, The Natural Paradise: Painting in America, 1800-1950, October 1-November 30, 1976, pp. 156-57, illustrated.
Grand Rapids, Michigan, Grand Rapids Museum of Art, Themes in American Painting, October 1-November 30, 1977, pp. 102, 153, no. 62, illustrated.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Reflections of Nature: Flowers in American Art, 1984, pp. 83, 151, 163, fig. 131, illustrated.
Des Moines, Iowa, The Des Moines Art Center, Iowa Collects, May 12-July 28, 1985, pp. 15, 52, illustrated.
St. Louis, Missouri, St. Louis Art Museum; Honolulu, Hawaii, Honolulu Academy of Arts; Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, The Ebsworth Collection: American Modernism 1911-1947, November 20, 1987-June 5, 1988, pp. 176-77, 220-21, no. 66, illustrated.
Washington, D.C., National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, American Impressions: Masterworks from American Art Forum Collections, March 27-July 5, 1993, pp. 20-21, illustrated.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Joseph Stella, April 22-October 9, 1994, pp. 107, 109-11, 120, 268, no. 133, illustrated.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, March 5-November 12, 2000, pp. 240-44, no. 63, illustrated.
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

Joseph Stella, an Italian born American artist, is among the most dynamic and undeniably multifaceted Modernists of the early twentieth century. Inspired by both the natural and man-made wonders in the world around him, as well as his own deeply personal spirituality, Stella created dynamic compositions incorporating elements of Futurism, Surrealism and moreover the spirit of American Modernism. A unique, pivotal work executed in grand scale at the same time as his famous Brooklyn Bridge series, Tree of My Life at once stands as an important reassessment and bold announcement of the painter’s own identity at the peak of his career.

Stella first immigrated to America in 1896, following his brother to New York City to study medicine. Instead, he left his medical training to pursue his artistic talents, studying under William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League of New York. The aspiring artist’s early focus was grounded in a decidedly romantic response to America and included early documentary work in illustration. However, eventually disillusioned with his urban experience, Stella return to Europe in 1909, where he received important early exposure to a myriad of Modernist movements in Italy and France. Inspired by members of the Cubist, Fauvist and especially Futurist movements, including painters Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini, the artist’s vocabulary evolved dramatically and ventured further towards abstraction.

Invigorated by his experience on his home continent, Stella eventually returned to New York encouraged by the progressive artistic movements developing in the city. Finding solace in a new generation of immigrant Modernists, including Marcel Duchamp and Albert Gleizes, Stella firmly established himself within New York avant-garde circles, culminating with inclusion in the seminal 1913 Armory Show. In the years immediately following, then in his early forties and living in Brooklyn, Stella basked in the glory of a vibrant city, in its steel and electricity, power and energy. The environment provided the artist with dramatic subject matter that he depicted with a bold, forceful, angular style that combined attributes of Cubism and tenants of Futurism. His success in the subject was perhaps no greater than with the Brooklyn Bridge, a seemingly obvious subject that the painter helped transform into an icon of not just the city, but as an emblem of Modernism as a whole.

Conceived at the same moment as his celebrated series of Brooklyn Bridge paintings, Tree of My Life is grounded in the dynamism of these earlier works, but simultaneously evokes a new poetic realm of personal imagery. In his ceaseless search for his own voice, Stella reinvented and evolved, finding renewed vigor in life as he departed down a new path. Remarking of the time, and of specifically the inspiration behind the present work, the painter rapturously reported, “[While working on the ‘Brooklyn Bridge’], brusquely, a new light broke over me, metamorphosing aspects and visions of things. Unexpectedly, from the sudden unfolding of blue distances of my youth in Italy, a great clarity announced Peace... proclaimed the luminous dawn of A New Era. Upon the recomposed calm of my soul a radiant promise quivered and a vision indistinct but familiar—began to appear. The clarity became more and more intense, turning into a rose. The vision spread all the largeness of Her wings, and with the velocity of the first rays of the arising Sun, rushed toward me… And one clear morning in April I found myself in the midst of joyous singing and delicious scent, the singing and the scent of birds and flowers ready to celebrate the baptism of my new art, the birds and the flowers already bejeweling the tender foliage of the newborn tree of my hopes, ‘The Tree of My Life’” (J. Stella, quoted in I. Jaffe, Joseph Stella’s Symbolism, San Francisco, 1994, n.p.).

The result, as described in Stella’s vision, is a staggeringly layered and complex composition that is equally confounding, mesmerizing and exquisitely beautiful. Taken as a whole, the arrangement bears notable similarities to works Stella created in the lead up to this point. The work’s intense directional energy along a central bilateral axis is reminiscent of the Brooklyn Bridge series and his commitment to Futurism, with geometric forms that can be extrapolated from its Cubist tendencies. The painting also references the artist’s roots in Italy, particularly with its altar-like scale and a cathedral-like structure that diffuses the clean, delicate colors of the overall image, themselves alluding to a pure and exultant beauty akin to the work of Stella’s fellow Italian Fra Angelico. Delving deeper into the composition unveils a frenetic surface world, full of energy, as a maddening Hieronymus Bosch-type arrangement of intricate layers of elements, symbols and realities appear within a multitude of picture planes. A vast array of birds, flowers and other natural forms provide symbolic vignettes of not only the artist’s life, but of life as a whole. Throngs of flora and fauna emanate from a brooding mass of gnarled trunk, perhaps of an olive tree or some ancient vine, evocative of the artist’s memories of the old world, while the surreal, dreamlike nature of the remainder of the composition prophetically alludes to his long career to come.

Stella wrote further of the present work’s mysterious symbolism: “The pure cobalt with which our sky is covered lovingly protects and encloses, at the upper part of the canvas, the whiteness of the flowers that close off the last arduous flight of the Spiritual Life. And the pure beauty of our homeland...transformed, ennobled by the nostalgia of memories, flows all around like healthful air, joyfully animating the sumptuous floral orchestration that follows the episode of the ascension with appropriate resounding chords: the clanging of silver and gold, signifying the first triumphs, and the deep adagio, played by the charged, rich greens and reds, loosened from the sudden searing cry of the intense vermilion of the lily, placed as a seal of generative blood at the base of the robust trunk, twisted, already twisted by the first fierce struggles in the snares that Evil Spirits set on our path” (J. Stella, quoted in I. Jaffe, ibid., n.p.).

Thus, in Tree of My Life, Stella weaves together intensely personal, autobiographical and fantastically delicate elements that result in a decorative tapestry and achieve a markedly lyrical whole. The powerful, opulent and operatic composition announces Stella’s own unique Modernism, one which is grounded in the gritty powerful movements of the world’s foremost artistic movements and in his earlier work, but that is equally delicate and beautiful, representing the painter’s new, original artform. “In the end it is the picture’s sheer extravagance, its irrepressible romantic vitality, that triumphs. Its title is only partially correct; it is not the life-tree of the whole Stella, but it is the pure expression of one side of his nature—a side that, for better or worse, was to gain the ascendancy during the last twenty-five years of his life” (J. Baur, Joseph Stella, New York, 1971, p. 47). With its intense complexity, Tree of My Life is as a tour de force, emblematic of not just Stella’s life and his own artistic genius, but also the prominent artistic movements of the early twentieth century. It is a triumph of Modern art.

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