By Hannah E. Jones
Stepping into the High Museum of Art’s second floor, visitors are transported into a world of vibrant colors and lush blooming flowers — more so resembling a botanical garden than a traditional art museum.
Welcome to the High’s latest exhibit — “Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature” — unveiled on Feb. 24. The collection includes about 120 nature-based paintings and drawings from the American modernist painter.
Stella was born in Italy in 1877 and moved to New York when he was 19. Throughout his decades-long career, the artist dabbled with various styles, ranging from futurism to classically ideal, and various mediums like painting, drawing and collages. He is well known for his industrial works, which often follow a complex geometric structure, with dark colors dominating the canvas. One of his most famous works is of the Brooklyn Bridge, which he painted several iterations of throughout his career.
Stella’s collection has another side, though. Throughout his artistic life, he showed a fascination with the natural world, particularly trees and flowers. These depictions range from simple, like “Peonies,” which shows understated colored pencil drawing, to the incredibly complex and intricate “Flowers, Italy,” an explosion of colors and blooms.
“I’m hoping that this exhibition feels, for many, like a discovery,” said Stephanie Heydt, the High Museum’s American Art curator. “[Stella is well known] for his works about American modernity and the Brooklyn Bridge, but the most significant amount of work that he did was on the theme of nature.”
One show-stopper is “Tree of My Life,” an absolute cacophony of color, with vibrant flora and fauna packed into the massive piece with an olive tree acting as the anchor.
While his works followed two distinct styles — the natural and the industrial — many motifs stayed consistent through the decades, showing that Stella was true to himself and his inspirations. Stella once wrote he wished “that my every working day might begin and end, as a good omen, with the light, gay painting of a flower,” showing his powerful connection to the natural world.
While he lived in America for many years, he would also spend long stints in Italy and other parts of Europe and, regardless of where he lived, he was inspired by his homeland.
Like in “Purissima,” which is part of the High’s permanent collection. The oil painting shows a larger-than-life Madonna who radiates an ethereal glow. She’s accompanied by two herons and surrounded by flowers with Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in the background. Stella’s Italian roots shine through in this piece, depicting the saint statues that were often carried through villages during celebrations.
“He was not afraid to go a little offbeat,” Heydt said. “He was painting these images that many saw as Catholic icons, at a time when there was strong anti-Catholic sentiment and anti-immigrant sentiment, but that didn’t hold him back. It was his way of expressing his deep sense of identity and joy. These are joyful paintings. [Stella] is really trying to share, I think, the joy that he feels when he returns to his home, the joy that he feels basking in the sun.”
Later in life, he spent two years in Barbados and drew great inspiration from the country’s natural landscape, which can be seen in works like the aptly named “Tropical Scene — Barbados.”
The exhibit ends on a poignant, intimate note with a short film highlighting quotes from Stella to a backdrop of his works, personal photographs and specially shot footage. Taking a moment to sit and watch, visitors may feel like they’re hearing from Stella himself.
The exhibition was organized by the High and the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Pennsylvania. Making its debut in Atlanta, this is the first major museum exhibition dedicated to Stella’s nature-based works. The exhibit will run from now until Sunday, May 21. For more on the new exhibit, click here.