Standing before the teeming terrain of Joseph Stella’s Tree of My Life (1919), Tylee Abbott, Vice President of American Art at Christie’s, is moved to describe it as ‘a eureka moment — not just for the artist but for all of American modernism.’
Joseph Stella was born in the town of Muro Lucano in the south of Italy in 1877. He emigrated to the United States in the late 1890s and began studies in medicine before deciding to become an artist instead. In 1913, his work featured — alongside that of major Europeans such as Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp — in the landmark Armory Show in New York, the exhibition that is widely held to have launched modern art in America.
‘Stella established himself as a key figure of the US avant-garde,’ explains Abbott, who points out this was in part because of the close links he maintained with his home continent. Trips to Italy and France kept Stella up to speed with advances by radical movements such as Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism (he even knew numerous Futurist artists personally, including Gino Severini and Umberto Boccioni).
This was to prove crucial in the creation of what are Stella’s most famous works: a series of paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the wonders of industrial engineering. He captured the bridge — in Cubo-Futurist fashion — as a marvellous crash of cables and steel. A thoroughly modern style for a thoroughly modern structure.
‘Stella basked in the glory of the dynamic city New York had become,’ says Abbott, ‘and it’s fascinating that in the same year as his first Brooklyn Bridge pictures — 1919 — he also painted Tree of My Life.’ The painting comes to auction at Christie’s in New York on 13 November in An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale.
Tree of My Life features a gnarled trunk at its centre, from which all manner of colourful flora and fauna emanate. In the background is an ambrosial landscape beneath a blue sky. The trunk resembles that of an olive tree (a tree native to the Mediterranean area of Stella’s youth), and, given the work’s title — Tree of My Life, it’s tempting to read the painting autobiographically.
However, equally constructive is to view the work art-historically. The array of birds, flowers and other life-forms in a teeming terrain recalls the imagery of Hieronymus Bosch. There’s also a similarity to stained-glass windows in churches — the passages of brilliant colours in combination, the paradisiacal setting, and the biblical allusion (to the Tree of Life in Genesis).
Abbott points out that the painting has more in common with Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge works than meets the eye — above all, the central axis on which it’s structured and along which the directional energy flows. (The trunk serves as a striking vertical, while a path jutting out from the left-hand edge half-way up serves as a horizontal.)
Finally, there’s what the specialist calls the ‘rich, painterly surface’. This, combined with the painting’s great size (7ft by 6ft) and the fact many of the forms in it verge on abstraction, means Tree of My Life might also be considered a precursor to the Abstract Expressionist canvases of Jackson Pollock and his peers decades later.
‘One clear morning in April, I found myself in the midst of joyous singing and delicious scent… of birds and flowers ready to celebrate the baptism of my new art’ — Joseph Stella
‘There comes a moment in any great artist’s career when they shake off their influences and their past to come up with something truly, groundbreakingly original,’ says Abbott. ‘And that’s precisely what we have with Joseph Stella’s Tree of My Life.’
As for the artist himself, he too saw the painting as one of great significance. ‘A new light broke over me,’ he said, in later life, of the painting’s conception. ‘One clear morning in April, I found myself in the midst of joyous singing and delicious scent… of birds and flowers ready to celebrate the baptism of my new art, the birds and the flowers already enjewelling the tender foliage of the newborn tree of my hopes, Tree of My Life.’
Joseph Stella died in 1946, and the current work was acquired four decades later by the entrepreneur and collector Barney A. Ebsworth. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Ebsworth amassed what is widely regarded as the greatest privately owned collection of American modernist art, his Stella taking its place alongside Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey and Willem de Kooning’s Woman as Landscape, to name but two.
Ebsworth insisted his approach to collecting was based on three crucial factors: quality, quality and quality. ‘He sought out the best works by the best artists,’ says Abbott, ‘specifically those by Americans who’d spent time in Europe in the early part of the 20th century and absorbed inspiration there before setting off on a bold, modernist path of their own in the US. Few paintings embody that better than Tree of My Life.’