Modernism: Joseph Stella, Walt Whitman, and America
Modernism: Joseph Stella, Walt Whitman, and America
In 1919 immigrant artist
Joseph Stella commenced the first and most famous of his
painted representations of the
Stella was already familiar with Whitman's
verse when he immigrated to this country in March 1896,
just four years after Whitman's death.
Two inexpensive anthologies of Whitman's writings,
both containing virtually all of Whitman's major poems,
had been available in translation in
The catalyst for Stella was his introduction
to the art of the Italian Futurists which
he first encountered at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in
In the years following the Armory Show,
Stella's art underwent a radical transformation as he struggled
to integrate the celebrated modernity of Whitman's
In 1917 Stella
took up residence in
While in Brooklyn Stella lived within
sight of the
Despite Whitman's enthusiasm for American
technological progress and his having visited
Stella especially enjoyed the elevated
train, the twentieth-century version of Whitman's omnibus,
which traversed the bridge and provided a favorite vantage
point from which to sketch the urban panorama unfolding
all around. Several
years earlier in Man in Elevated (Train), 1916 (Mildred
Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis,
MO) Stella represented himself seated next to the window
in just such an elevated train, his head and face obscured
by a broad-brimmed hat similar to the type Whitman favored.
In the end, however, it was Stella's pedestrian
encounters with the bridge that stimulated the most visceral
connection to the poet.
For Stella as for the American painter John Sloan,
traversing the bridge on foot triggered memories of Whitman's
Stella's painting, like Whitman's poem, commences
with the simple act of crossing the East River between Brooklyn
Like the poem, Stella's painting evokes a timeless present in which light and dark, the material and the immaterial, past and future fuse in a symbol of transcendent power and authority. In both painting and poem the spectator is absorbed directly into the kinesthetic and kaleidoscopic rhythms of the crossing. The shimmering cables of the Brooklyn Bridge swoop down like human arms to gather the viewer into the bridge's mysterious inner depths much as Whitman absorbs future generations of readers into the welcoming embrace of his poem. Both painter and poet convey the dynamic aspects of the crossing through the use of fragmented forms, pulsating colors and dramatic contrasts of light and dark. Stella, for example, gives us partial views of the roadway, the subway tunnel, the bridge's soaring cables, and the skyscrapers in the distance, while Whitman presents us with disjointed views of the shoreline, the buildings on the dock, the foundry fires on the opposite shore, and the Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! (LG 164). In both there is a visionary blurring of the real and the ideal, inside and outside, near and far. There is also in both the sense of a dynamic space-time continuum, which allies present, past and future in a throbbing and kaleidoscopic intensity, evocative of the Futurist concept of simultaneity. The simple, compact, well-join'd scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme (LG 160).
In one of his published commentaries Stella described his experiences on the bridge in strongly spiritual terms. Many nights I stood on the bridge, he recalled,
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry records a similar commingling of the mundane and the mystical, and it, too, resonates with graphic allusions to the spiritual. As the poet who receiv'd identity by my body (LG 162) peers over the side of the ferry into the Astately and rapid river (LG 162) below, he had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams, / Look'd at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water (LG 161). These fine spokes of light emanating from the shape of my head, or anyone's head, in the sunlit water! (LG 165) project the distinct and unmistakable image of a halo. Whitman, who shunned aligning his verse with any of the world's established religions, nevertheless infused his poems with an unmistakable spirituality. He once characterized Leaves of Grass as Athe most religious book among books: crammed full of faith. 
Although raised a Catholic in his native
Stella's exuberant rendering of the
During the protracted upheavals of the
First World War, audiences in both Europe and America responded
forcefully to Whitman's cosmic internationalism as expressed
in poems like Passage to India.
Dancer Isadora Duncan included excerpts from the
poem in Dionysian, published in conjunction with
her 1915 performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, and
French poet Guillaume Apollinaire echoed its transformative
powers in Zone.
In Passage to India
the feats of modern science -- the opening of the Suez Canal,
the completion of the transcontinental railroad, and the
laying of the Atlantic cable — are valued less for their scientific merits,
than as aids to international communication and the transcendence
of the soul. The
hero of the poem is Christopher Columbus, the Genoese explorer
and chief histrion
(LG 417) whose search for the Passage to
The central image of Stella's Brooklyn Bridge — the tiered Gothic tower and its spiritually-charged cables radiating messages from above — gives visual form to Whitman's verbal trope. Like Dante's steps to paradise, the ascending form of the bridge's central tower leads out of the Brooklyn Ainferno, as Stella informs us, toward Paradise and the conjunction of WORLDS.  The steel cables in Brooklyn Bridge, resonant with the glow of spiritual light, echo the Ashimmering track of beams Whitman observed in the water. These streams of heavenly light are simultaneously the electrical searchlights that plow [New York's] leaden sky in the evening.  In their duality, these carriers of the sacred and the profane recall Anne Gilchrist's observation about Leaves of Grass — that the words had ceased to be words, and [had] become electric streams.  In both painting and poem a dialectical pairing of opposites — light and dark, ascent and descent, outside and inside — dramatizes the soul's journey into and through the spiritual depths of the vast terraqueous globe (LG 416).
Tropes of bridging — both physical
and spiritual — figure prominently in both
In his life as in his art, Stella, too,
was a bridge — between continents and cultures, between
Stella's status as a transnational purveyor
of the American scene, his extensive knowledge of Whitman's
reception internationally and his commitment to filtering
his response to Whitman's
This article is a condensed version of a chapter in my forthcoming book, Looking into Walt Whitman, American Art 1850-1920 (Penn State Press, 2006).
 . For a color image of this painting see Barbara Haskell, Joseph Stella (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), 87.
 . For an annotated listing of some 379 books and articles written about Whitman in 1919, see Scott Giantvalley, Walt Whitman, 1838-1939: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1981), 266-90.
. Alan Trachtenberg,
AWalt Whitman: Precipitant of the Modern,
 . Joseph Stella, AFor the American Painting, in Haskell, Joseph Stella, 210-11.
 . F. T. Marinetti, AWe Abjure Our Symbolist Masters, the Last Lovers of the Moon, in Marinetti: Selected Writings, ed. R. W. Flint (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972), 68.
. Basil de Selincourt,
Walt Whitman: A Critical Study
 . Joseph Stella, AThe New Art, The Trend 5 (June 1913): 394-95.
. Joseph Stella,
 . Irma B. Jaffee, Joseph Stella (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 119.
. Arthur Geffen,
ASilence and Denial: Walt Whitman and the
 . Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Norton Critical Edition, eds. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Bodgettt (New York: Norton, 1973), 203. Hereafter citations from this volume are included in parens in the text.
 . For a color image of this painting, see Haskell, Joseph Stella, 73.
. John Sloan,
. Joseph Stella,
. Horace Traubel,
ed., With Walt Whitman in
1 (1915): n.p..
This single-issue publication included the following
lines from APassage to
. Stella, AInterview with Bruno Barilli, and
. Joseph Stella,
 . Anne Gilchrist, AA Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman, in Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman, ed., Thomas B. Harned (New York: Haskell House, 1973), 3-4.
 . M. Wynn Thomas, The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987), 94.