Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place

Bridging Modernism: Joseph Stella, Walt Whitman, and America
Ruth L. Bohan
University of Missouri-St. Louis

In 1919 immigrant artist Joseph Stella commenced the first and most famous of his painted representations of the Brooklyn Bridge (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT). [1]   That same year the world celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of Whitman's birth in scores of books and articles praising Whitman's legacy and hailing his contributions to modern culture. [2]   The scope of Whitman's appeal was both deep and broad ranging.  As Alan Trachtenberg has observed, American modernism “shaped itself at least in part as a diverse collective response to Whitman's call, an answerer to the Answerer.” [3]    The protean nature of Whitman's verse and its compelling emphasis on personal self-discovery struck a responsive chord among a generation struggling to define itself in a diverse and rapidly changing world.  For Stella, Whitman's verse embodied nothing less than the hope of the new civilization of America and with it the prospect of a globally integrated and spiritually transfigured world order.  The Italian-born artist hailed Whitman as one of the giants towering in the American Olympus of Literature. [4]   In the iconic grandeur of the Brooklyn Bridge, the monumental successor to Whitman's Brooklyn ferry, Stella probed the potent network of associations that for him expressed the creative fusion of Whitman, modernity and America. 

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 Italy since 1890.  Upon his arrival, Stella settled in New York, where his brother, Antonio, was a physician.  The younger Stella preferred painting to medicine and had even considered becoming a poet.  Throughout his early years in New York Stella kept his enthusiasm for Whitman alive by associating with a number of like-minded artists and writers.  One of these was the painter Robert Henri, a charismatic teacher and ardent enthusiast of Whitman's democratic idealism.  For both Henri and Whitman the streets of New York radiated the pulse and vitality of the nation.  Along with other of Henri's students Stella sketched the city's burgeoning immigrant populations.  Several of his representations appeared under the title AAmericans in the Rough: Character Studies at Ellis Island Drawn from Life by Joseph Stella in the December 23, 1905 issue of The Outlook.  In these and other of his drawings of immigrants Stella eschewed the flamboyant brushwork and genre emphasis encouraged by Henri.  Instead, as in his series, “Pittsburgh Types,” (http://www.clpgh.org/exhibit/stell1.html) Stella clung to the traditional modeling and expressive chiaroscuro associated with the Old Master traditions of his native Italy.  Only after several return visits to Europe would Stella devise ways of bridging the seeming gulf between his Italian background, Whitman and the modernity of his adopted country.

The catalyst for Stella was his introduction to the art of the Italian Futurists which he first encountered at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in 1912.  That exhibition included works by such leading Futurist painters as Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla.  Poet Filippo Marinetti, the founder and chief spokesperson for Futurism, was outspoken in his praise for Whitman, whom he hailed as one of the “four or five great precursors of Futurism.” [5]   Marinetti, who was a fiery speaker, presented several lectures when the exhibition opened in London, where it attracted massive media attention and a crowd of some 40,000.  The following year, the London critic Basil De Selincourt identified a number of similarities between Whitman and Marinetti in his book, Walt Whitman: A Critical Study.  De Selincourt hailed Whitman as “the poet of machinery and praised his ability Ato emancipate the mind from the bondage of accepted symbols.”  Most importantly, De Selincourt identified in Whitman's verse examples of the kinds of spatial and temporal disjunctures characteristic of the Futurist technique of simultaneity.  “Years before futurism' was heard or thought of,” De Selincourt wrote, Whitman had “felt and rendered one of its Acore aspirations.” [6]  

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 America and the cultural heritage of his native Italy.  “Cubism and futurism interest me to a very great degree,” he declared in an article in The Trend, his first published writing on art.  He characterized the value of Futurism as lying principally in creating a new sort of language apt to express the feelings and the emotions of the modern artist.  Following Marinetti's lead, Stella urged those in his adopted country to take heed of the great futurist work first achieved by Walt Whitman.  “It would behoove all creative individuals,” he stressed, “to follow this glorious example.” [7]  

In 1917 Stella took up residence in Brooklyn, where he lived in relative proximity to Whitman's old haunts.  Although the move seems to have been motivated more by economic necessity than by a self-conscious desire to excavate Whitman's Brooklyn roots, it initiated a profound reassessment of the interlocking networks of cultural, technological and mystical/spiritual affiliations linking him to Whitman.  “Brooklyn gave me a sense of liberation,” Stella explained.  “The vast view of her sky in opposition to the narrow one of NEW YORK, was a relief — and at night, in her solitude, I used to find, intact, the green freedom of my own self.” [8]   During his years in Brooklyn, Stella taught Italian to a group of Brooklyn seminarians and immersed himself in Whitman's writings.  Even late in his life he could quote Whitman at length. [9]  

While in Brooklyn Stella lived within sight of the Brooklyn Bridge, which would shortly celebrate its fortieth anniversary.  From the window of his apartment in the heavily industrialized Williamsburg section of the city Stella could see the bridge's massive towers, with their graceful Gothic arches, soaring cables, bifurcated roadway and elevated pedestrian walkway.  Both Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, whose welcoming torch of freedom symbolized new hope for the thousands of immigrants who daily thronged this country's shores, represented important icons of American cultural promise.  To Stella, Roebling's masterpiece symbolized nothing less than the climax of American civilization.  

Despite Whitman's enthusiasm for American technological progress and his having visited New York several times during the bridge's construction (it was completed in 1883), he wrote little about the bridge.  Whitman's silence, Arthur Geffen has argued, rested principally in the fact that “bridges for him were simply not in the same league as ferries.” [10]   In “Song of the Exposition,” however, in one of his few references to the bridge, Whitman praised it as one of the Atechnological triumphs of our time. [11]   Although the ferry continued to operate until 1924, it was the bridge not the ferry through which Stella and his fellow modernists figured Whitman's compelling ties to modernity and the contemporary urban environment.

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. [12]   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 “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” [13]   Stella's painting, like Whitman's poem, commences with the simple act of crossing the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan.  Although Stella's painting is set at night, rather than at sunset, in both painting and poem the mundane act of crossing is radically transformed by the dazzling play of light and the infusion of religious motifs.

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,

— and in the middle alone — lost — a defenceless prey to the surrounding swarming darkness — crushed by the mountainous black impenetrability of the skyscrapers — here and there lights resembling the suspended falls of astral bodies or fantastic splendors of remote rites . . . I felt deeply moved, as if on the threshold of a new religion or in the presence of a new DIVINITY. [14]

“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. [15]  

Although raised a Catholic in his native Italy, Stella no longer practiced his religion.  Still, in this and other of his paintings of the bridge, he drew heavily on the distinctive religious symbolism of Catholicism to express the “spiritual welding” central to Whitman's conception of a new, revitalized America.  The symbolic merger of the bridge's physically separate and distinct towers and their crowning with an imaginary third tower create the illusion of a church steeple, its soaring Gothic forms pointing heavenward, its tripartite form inscribing the Trinity.  These same Gothic arches evoke the pointed windows in a Gothic church, their iconic presence reinforced by their frontality, their patterned surface suggestive of the rich patterning of a stained glass window.  The crisscrossing web of delicate black lines which isolate and contain the painting's many colored units evoke the window's leaded superstructure, while the intense and flickering light which darts across the surface of the painting recalls the shifting patterns of natural and spiritual light animating the window's colored panes.  Inscribed within the scattered fragments of tunnels, towers, cables and lights are suggestions of both “the vivid pageant of joyful visions” Stella admired in Whitman's verse and the multiplicity of interrelated scenes comprising a medieval window's narrative program.

Stella's exuberant rendering of the Gothic Brooklyn Bridge seems a graphic reenactment of a symbolic contest he had himself encountered between Milan's flamboyant Gothic cathedral and the modernism of Marinetti's Futurist enterprise, headquartered not far away.  Transposed to American soil, Stella's visual restatement echoes both the distinctive, skeletal characteristics of the Milan structure and its iconic presence.  Shrouded in the dark of night and illuminated by the lighted cables, those steely transmitters of the spiritual, Stella's bridge rises up dreamlike to assert its dominion over traditional religious monuments.  In this marriage of the mystical and the modern, Stella projects an image whose power is fundamentally inscribed in his modernity.

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.” [16]    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 India” paralleled Whitman's own quest for personal and spiritual transcendence.  As part of the poem's Hegelian configuration of progress, Whitman contrasts the achievements of modern science with the “myths and fables of eld, . . . / The far-darting beams of the spirit, the unloos'd dreams, / The deep diving bibles and legends” (LG 412).  Here are “Towers of fables immortal fashion'd from mortal dreams! and Afables spurning the known, eluding the hold of the known, mounting to heaven!” (LG 412).

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.” [17] 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.” [18]   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.” [19]   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 Brooklyn Bridge and “Passage to India.”  Whitman's poem maps a network of connectors which mediate the individual's journey through time and space.  Among these are the “duplicate slender lines [of the transcontinental railroad], / Bridging the three or four thousand miles” (LG 413-14) between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  At its most literal, Stella's painting represents a bridge which spans the physical distance between Brooklyn and Manhattan.  A more expansive global bridging is suggested by the pattern of thin, black lines that divide the painting into horizontal and vertical zones reminiscent of the latitudinal and longitudinal markings on a map.  Metaphorically, the structure's silvery cables bridge the illimitable divide between the physical and spiritual worlds, while its roadways and tunnels construct trajectories to the future. 

In his life as in his art, Stella, too, was a bridge — between continents and cultures, between Europe and America and between Whitman and an international community of modernists.  By 1920 Stella had lived in New York, the most modern city in the world and a primary focus of Whitman's poetic observations, for nearly a quarter of a century, a situation that afforded him intense feelings of privilege and entitlement.  As an immigrant and a modernist Stella forged important social and artistic connections between Europe and America.  He brought knowledge of the European enthusiasm for Whitman to American, and in turn transported vital, firsthand knowledge of Whitman's America to Europe.  Stella's immigrant status provided him with a critical perspective outside the purview of colleagues on either continent.  In answer to Whitman's call, this “illustrious emigrι” had learned “the lessons of our New World” (LG 196), combining them in his art with the cultural heritage of his native Italy.  “Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it” (LG 32) Stella inscribed in his very existence the duality of Whitman's protean poet/speaker.

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 America through the enlarging lens of the poetry resonate with notable power and authority across the pulsating surface of his work.  Where M.Wynn Thomas has proposed “the time-arresting canvases of the luminists” as the “closest painterly analogue” to Whitman's “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” [20] Stella's Brooklyn Bridge poses a challenging alternative.  The painting's richly nuanced and fragmented surface, the pervasiveness of its religious allusions, its conflicted response to modern industry and its projection of a spiritually resonant and globally integrated world order give visual form to many of the poem's structural and thematic commitments.  In its distinctive melding of notions of flux and stasis, the material and the spiritual, near and far, nationalism and internationalism, Brooklyn Bridge inscribes in its very form Stella's explorations of the conjunction between Whitman, modernism and his Italian soul.


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).

[1] .  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.

[2] .  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.

[3] .  Alan Trachtenberg, AWalt Whitman: Precipitant of the Modern, in The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman, ed. Ezra Greenspan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 197.

[4] .  Joseph Stella, AFor the American Painting, in Haskell, Joseph Stella, 210-11.

[5] .  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.

[6] .  Basil de Selincourt, Walt Whitman: A Critical Study (1914: rpt, New York: Russell & Russell, 1965), 232, 135, 154.

[7] .  Joseph Stella, AThe New Art, The Trend 5 (June 1913): 394-95.

[8] .  Joseph Stella, AThe Brooklyn Bridge (A Page of My Life), in Haskell, Joseph Stella, 206.

[9] .  Irma B. Jaffee, Joseph Stella (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 119.

[10] .  Arthur Geffen, ASilence and Denial: Walt Whitman and the Brooklyn Bridge, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 1, no. 4 (March 1984): 7.

[11] .  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.

[12] .  For a color image of this painting, see Haskell, Joseph Stella, 73.

[13] .  John Sloan, John Sloan's New York Scene, ed. Bruce St. John (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 428.

[14] .  Joseph Stella, AThe Brooklyn Bridge (A Page of My Life), in Haskell, Joseph Stella, 207.

[15] .  Horace Traubel, ed., With Walt Whitman in Camden (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906), 1:372.

[16] .  Dionysian 1 (1915): n.p..  This single-issue publication included the following lines from APassage to India: AO we can wait no longer, / We too take ship, O soul, / Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas, / Fearless for unknown shores.  On Apollinaire, see Betsy Erkkila, Walt Whitman Among the French (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 204.

[17] .  Stella, AInterview with Bruno Barilli, and AThe Brooklyn Bridge (A Page of My Life), in Haskell, Joseph Stella, 208, 206.

[18] .  Joseph Stella, ANew York, in Haskell, Joseph Stella, 219.

[19] .  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.

[20] .  M. Wynn Thomas, The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987), 94.

Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place