Des Moines

Precisionism in the Collection of Carl and Edith Weeks: A Look at the Works of Joseph Stella

Carl and Edith Weeks were fans of the Italian/American artist, Joseph Stella, and during their tenure as owners of Salisbury House, collected four of Stella’s paintings – King of the Beggars, Tree of My Life, The Birth of Venus, and Apotheosis of the Rose. Today, the Salisbury House Foundation retains in its collection three beautiful Joseph Stella paintings. Each painting dates to a different year and illustrates the evolution of his artistic style.

Joseph Stella painting Apotheosis of the Rose

On June 13th, 1877, Joseph Stella was born to a middle-class family in Muro Lucano, Italy. Full name Giuseppe Michele Stella, he Americanized it when he took up residence in New York. Coming from an educated family consisting of attorneys and doctors, Stella originally planned to follow in their footsteps and moved to New York to pursue a medical degree in 1896. However, this plan was abandoned when he left medical school to pursue art. During his professional career, Stella’s artistic style would evolve several times.

In the 1920s, Stella was introduced to Carl and Edith Weeks through the art dealer, F. Dudensing. This initial introduction led to the development of a friendship between artist and patrons. Stella frequently corresponded with the Weeks and stayed at Salisbury House upon its completion as a residence.

Title – King of the Beggars
Style – Academic Realism, Year – 1900

As mentioned above, the Weeks’ collected several of Stella’s works, the earliest being King of the Beggars. The painting was completed in 1900 and represented Stella’s Academic Realism phase, his earliest style. Academic Realism was taught to young artists in art school but was criticized by Impressionist and Avant-garde artists due to its highly idealized, smooth, and polished feel. This type of painting style often contains allegorical nudes and theatrical figures

Following his shift from Academic Realism, Stella became an illustrator for a magazine. It was during this time that he began an industrial series featuring Pittsburgh. Disenchanted with America and longing for his native Italy, Stella returned to his homeland in 1909. While back in Italy, Stella became acquainted with Modernism and Futurism, inspired, his later work took on a whole new air.

Title – Tree of my Life, Style – Precisionism, Year – 1919

When he returned to New York in 1913, Stella joined the cultural circles of Alfred Stieglitz, Marcel Duchamp, and Walter Arensberg. His paintings took on a geometric quality, full of sweeping lines, bold colors, and linear movement. While known for his futuristic designs, Stella was also inspired by botanical and nature scenes – this artistic movement, while similar to Futurism, lacks the mechanical and industrial elements, is only found in America, and was categorized as Precisionism.

Title – The Birth of Venus, Style – Precisionism, Year – 1920

Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy during the early 1900s. Stella’s Futuristic works focus on speed, technology, lines of force, and movement. Looking at the last three paintings that the Weeks’ collected from the artist, they are all categorized as Precisionism.

Title – Apotheosis of the Rose
Style – Precisionism, Year – 1926

Influenced by Futurism and Cubism, Precisionism utilizes shafts of light as rigid lines, striking coloration, and geometric renderings. The angularity of the animals, linear vegetation, and bold coloring harken back to Stella’s cityscapes. Unlike other artistic movements of this period, Precisionism has no presence outside of the United States and was only active for about 20 years before falling out of favor after World War II.

By the 1930s, Stella’s style had fallen from favor, and his antagonistic personality had alienated him to would be collectors and contemporaries. The Weeks family would also fall out with the artist. The conflict was rumored to be caused by Stella’s quarrelsome nature and unfaithfulness to Mary French. In the years following World War II, Stella’s health began to decline. In 1946, he passed away from heart failure. Today, the Salisbury House Foundation retains three beautiful Joseph Stella paintings in its collection.

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