Painter Elisabeth Condon’s reflections on a painting by Joseph Stella were initially presented in the second episode of Elisabeth Condon Describes a Painting, a new series artist Amy Talluto has recently launched in her podcast Pep Talks for Artists. In each episode in this series Elisabeth Condon shares her way of looking at one painting, here, at the oil painting (1919) Tree of My Life, by Italian – American artist Joseph Stella (1877-1946)
Tree of My Life
The painting is big: 84 by 76 inches. Its composition is bisected by central, vertical lines emanating from a red lily at center bottom. Oranges, pinks, and blues bloom from a medley of earth-toned, sweet and sour greens with sooty underlayers of gray and raw umber.
The tree in the middle anchors everything. The red lily is wedged in front, with three stems swooping upward to form antler-like branches in the sky. The first and second stems create a wind tunnel, and the branches embrace a rotunda planet transposing the roof of the New York Botanical Garden’s interior to the cosmos.
In the top right, a cutaway space depicts Stella’s hometown, Muro Lucano, in southern Italy. During Stella’s childhood, or just after he left for America in 1897, the small town built a sizeable factory, and its funicular cable car twists through the contours of the town to the suburbs in this area of the painting. Below, a garden featuring specimens from the New York Botanical Gardens leads to the red lily and then veers left toward a shelf reminiscent of the Brooklyn Bridge. The shelf divides subterranean realms from a distant space where leaves blow with the wind, abutting blue clouds in an abstract network of passages.
In New York, Stella was starved for foliage. Barbara Rose writes in her 1997 essay, “Flora,”
“However, much Stella tried to embrace the American enthusiasm for hard steel and industrial subjects, he was a sensual European whose formal vocabulary remained tied to the voluptuous and unfolding organic forms of nature and not to the mechanical geometric shapes and structures of the industrial age. The conflict between the Virgin and dynamo, the rural tradition, and the machine age defined by Henry Adams in his autobiography, was, for Stella, never a real contest. His heart was with the Virgin.
Stella considered his years between the Armory Show…and the end of World War I his heroic period, despite the reality that he had to teach Italian in a Baptist seminary in the mornings to earn a living. In 1919 and 1920, he painted two of his most important works, Brooklyn Bridge and Tree of My Life. His first full scale floral extravaganza was inspired by the awakening of Spring. Even a tree in Brooklyn brought back memories of the blue distances of youth and golden, serene light.
Like the flower, the tree had symbolic meaning for Stella. It represented family and roots, much like the traditional images of genealogy to be found in the houses of old families in Italy. It was both the tree of knowledge that ended the innocence of Adam and Eve, as well as a symbolic ascending form that linked earth and sky. By then, Stella was living in Williamsburg, the Brooklyn village recently revived by the influx of contemporary artists seeking cheap studios.”
As if anything has changed!
Tree of My Life came to Stella in a blazing epiphany.
“One morning in April, to my amazement, against the infernal turmoil of a huge factory raging just in front of my house, a towering tree arose up in the sky with the glorious ascending vehemence of the rainbow after the tempest,” he wrote breathlessly in his diary. “The rich symbolic painting recalls the Baudelairian theme of the sinful “Les Fleurs du Mal:” a sonorous floral orchestration follows the phases of the ascension with the proper tunes. At the base my composition is marked by the vermilion of a flaming lily acting as the seal of the blood, generating the robust trunk of the tree. Robust, but already contorted by the first snares laid down upon our path by the genius of evil.”
Burly in build and acerbic in personality, Stella relates to the swollen, protuberant tree. He paints the trunk beautifully, with a surface like ink, rubbed with pastel or dry paint in soft tones. The ground and tree are mossy and murky. Their ascending color softens to gray, then white, featuring curious, geometrically incised white marks that appear celestial. While their branches propose a spiritual progression from Earth through human to Heaven, the painting functions as a travelogue, merging worlds in its composition.
What makes the painting magical are bubbles and cavities of space that weave converse and concave areas. While the trunk has a mass that is dug into, bubbles of diaphanous and transparent space advance forward as if to envelop us. The bubbles are both a negative imprint of the red lily and an affect of positive form, which is fascinating. When the eye moves across the lower two-thirds of the painting, the New York Botanical Garden pond appears in the background behind a cactus to the right.
Tree of My Life is a capacious, smeary painting. The smokiness of the tree and its under painted areas remind me of what he’s trying to do with soot in the Brooklyn Bridge paintings. The rubbed quality is a kind of marking that Stella’s painting didn’t maintain over time, a delicate facture less aggressive than the built-up layers of lumpy oil paint (we all know that look) in the cloud shapes in Tree of My Life. In the tree we see elegant blurry areas, minute markings, and a delicate line quality. He’s mixing all of it together and allowing us to read the varied surface of the painting. He’s completely open and free, despite conflicting ideas. He’s fighting for his love of the fin de siècle, but, because he doesn’t realize that, the painting doesn’t become conceptual. His feelings are literally worked out in the surface of the painting. He’s working one area against the other, saying, “I want this. No, I also want this.” and “Oh, I can put these together.” That’s how it feels. He was a strident, aggressive person who could get very dogmatic. But Tree of My Life doesn’t have that dogmatism because he doesn’t really know, as a painter, what he’s fighting for.
Initially Stella studied with Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase during his first visit to New York but rejected them for the Renaissance masters after his return to Europe. Upon his second return to New York in 1913, he meets Duchamp and sees him embodying a new American-style Futurism. He also participates in the first Armory Show, meets writer, Walter Arensberg, and attends his salons. He also applies the inspiration from Italian Futurism and from Gertrude Stein’s salon that he absorbed in Paris. All of that goes into this medley of applications and pressures that makes this painting’s surface compelling to look at.
Tree of My Life presents a discussion of simultaneous time and place. Painter Charles Burchfield, as we know, was an afficionado of Chinese scroll painting and would be the most literate source of it at the time, probably. He knew that idioms for nature, when you actually practice them, become vehicles for emotion, with genders, seasons, and mood. Burchfield picked up on this in his weird craggy shadows that turn out to be mood stones guiding him towards his own secret language, folded inside of landscape. I don’t think that Stella was interested in that. He got to a similar place, nonetheless, not so much with facture, but with imaginary travel. Rose suggests that like Gauguin and Odilon Redon, Stella was inspired by a very dreamy, opium induced vision. Flowers become a vehicle of transport or exaltation representing the gentle side of him, all the feeling inside he’s not able to express outside of painting.
Joseph Stella means a lot to me because he was a traveler, and I have also traveled a lot. I understand and relate to the desire to pack a lot into a painting based on all the amazing things observed traveling the world at a clip — which he had certainly been doing since Futurism, when the whole world was changing.
The flower, in Kant-ian terms, is only a fleeting beauty. It’s a thing that cannot be possessed, just like life itself. Nature is Stella’s spirituality. He said, “Through contact with nature, the artist is cleansed and purified…I remember the festive color of flowers, freshly cut and constantly renewed, cordoned every spot in which a miracle by St. Francis and St. Clare took place.” Stella wrote in 1946, his final year of life, that “My devout wish that my every working day might begin and end as a good omen with the light gay painting of a flower.”
At the onset of World War II, Stella returned to New York for good, moving across the street from the New York Botanical Garden. He had a tough decade at the end of his life, and he struggled and suffered. He worked on the WPA Project and was acknowledged for his work but didn’t quite get the recognition he desired. In his paintings, the Renaissance took hold, and his flowers morphed into complicated structures resembling strings and statues surrounding the Madonna. They’re beautifully painted, and surprisingly good so finally, in that way, he did get what he wanted.
The exhibition calls him a visionary landscape painter, and that’s his real self. I think of Henri Rousseau visiting Le Jardin des Plantes: painting a world of limited conditions (if you want to call Paris limited) but adding visions of huge lions, plants and people sleeping into his work. I feel that same magic about Stella’s painting.
A while back, my gallery, Emerson Dorsch, sent me an image of this painting from a private collection, and it looked epic. Since then, I’ve tracked it, hoping one day to see it. When I walked into the Norton Museum after a long day of travel (the A train had stopped service en route to JFK leading to many headaches), I saw this painting and discovered it to be just as gorgeous as promised, especially the smoky tree trunk (swollen shapes, such delicate texture). It was truly transporting. I saw how Stella had to make this painting because he couldn’t keep the siren song back. It was as if he were saying, “I think I’m going to go back, but I’m also going to move forward.” Flowers can do both, as agents of desire and markers of time, and they started and ended his every day.
Stella followed his vision. Though he paid the price with isolation, he did not waver. Tree of My Life inspires me and gives me hope, because to show who you really are as a painter is the point: to be transparent, to be in the painting. He really did that. It’s ironic that he lived his life as a restless seeker, because in his work he knows exactly what he wants. He alights in his own unique hybrid place –a place that he invents, paints, and shares with us.
About the writer Elisabeth Condon is a painter, who recently completed the Sam and Adele Golden Foundation Artist Residency in New Berlin, NY. Her free-flowing, synthetic landscapes compress time and place within multiple paint applications and references. You can view her work in New York at Freight and Volume Gallery, in Miami at Emerson Dorsch, and @elisabethcondon on Instagram.
About Pep Talks for Artists Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece has been excerpted from a much longer and in-depth discussion that can be listened to in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts.