Born in the small Italian town of Muro Lucano, Joseph Stella was one of five sons, and, at the age of 19, he followed his brother, a successful doctor, to New York in 1896. The city would never prove a perfect fit. Like the older Antonio, Joseph at first tried his hand at medicine, but quickly found himself drifting towards his interest in fine art and illustration. Antonio paid his way to America and, however reluctantly, blessed Joseph’s decision to pursue a career in fine arts, bankrolling his studies and early career. Living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then known as an overcrowded and poverty-stricken haven for new immigrants, Stella inevitably collided with the group of artists that came to be known as the Ashcan School. His studies with Robert Henri, following an acrimonious stint with William Merritt Chase, sent Stella out into the street, finding inspiration in the faces of the urban poor and in the increasingly industrial American landscape.
Stella sustained a small income on illustration work for magazines. Many artists found financial support through magazine illustration, but the gritty urban poverty themes of Henri’s coterie were generally less viable for mainstream magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, finding a more natural home in such left-end magazines as The Outlook and The Masses. In 1905, Stella’s street portraits were produced as an album of illustrations entitled Americans in the Rough. In 1907, Charities and the Commons, a magazine devoted to the plight of the downtrodden, sent Stella to Monongah, West Virginia, to render illustrations to accompany a report on a recent mine explosion. The strength of his work there earned him a place on the Pittsburgh Survey of 1908. Organized by Paul Kellogg, the reporter behind the Monongah project, and funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, what came to be known as the Pittsburgh Survey engaged a team of thirty specialists to “undertake the economic and physical conditions of Pittsburgh” [Barbara Haskell, Joseph Stella (1994), p. 21]. The multi-year survey sought to produce a portrait of the community through statistics, anecdotes, sociology, and economics. To ground the broad and lofty mission with the individual people it sought to describe, Kellogg enlisted the photographer Lewis Hine and Stella to produce images to accompany the report.
Many of Stella’s contemporaries working in the field of muckraking illustration leaned towards overt political messages, even outright propaganda. Stella’s illustrations, by contrast, are devoid of political position. The Pittsburgh pictures, while rendered in charcoal evocative of their sooty subject matter, have a misty and impressionistic quality. The dignity of his subjects was affirmed, but the young artist was also clearly impressed with the power of industry. He later remarked of the experience:
I was greatly impressed by Pittsburgh. It was a real revelation. Often shrouded by fog and smoke, her black mysterious mass – cut in the middle by the fantastic, tortuous Allegheny River and like a battlefield, ever pulsating throbbing with the innumerable explosions of its steel mills – was like the stunning realization of some of the most stirring infernal regions sung by Dante. In the thunderous voice of the wind, that at times with the most genial fury was lashing here and there fog and smoke to change the scenario for new, unexpected spectacles, I could hear the bitter, pungent Dantesque terzina [quoted by Haskell, p. 28].
Barbara Haskell described Stella’s work from this project: “Stella’s Pittsburgh images primarily took the form of individual portrait drawings, far more detailed and psychologically nuanced than those he had executed earlier” [Ibid., p. 23]. Stella’s work in Pittsburgh demonstrates his virtuosic talent as a draftsman in the traditional manner–a skill. Later in his career, he would often suppress this abundant talent in favor of a studied naiveté, a quality he sought as his modernist experiments grew more outré. He nonetheless never fully abandoned the traditional limning evinced here, returning periodically to a renaissance-like treatment of line and form. The present work is certainly among the largest and most refined of his work in Pittsburgh, the period of most sustained realism in his career. “Among the anonymous portrait studies of the miners and steelworkers, the most authoritative is the well-known Italian Leader, which may serve as a characteristic example of Stella’s approach to this kind of subject,” observed Irma Jaffe in 1970. She continued:
Interest is divided between the character of the man and the details of his surface appearance: the folds around the eyes are carefully given, the strong structure of the head is indicated by the dark-light modeling, while the rather long, unruly hair provides a romantically irregular contour that emphasizes the personality of the sitter. A balance between idealizing and describing, together with the appeal of the model, makes this one of the most successful heads Stella ever drew, superior even to the fine portraits of Marcel Duchamp and Edgard Varese [Irma Jaffe, Joseph Stella (1970), p. 22].
The dignity, strength, and pride of these working poor is palpable in the subtly rendered faces. More successful than the “Dantesque terzina” or even Hine’s photographs, Stella brought human scale and drama to Kellogg’s vast reportorial project in this quiet, powerful work. Irma Jaffe analyzed Stella’s early technique, citing the present work:
In considering the forms and shapes of the designs observed thus far, certain features begin to appear and recur regularly from which it is possible to derive some evidence of Stella’s stylistic tendencies. There is his insistence on centralized composition…Stella stressed the central area of his sheet, either through the massing of darks and lights or through a strong vertical pictorial element. He begins to show a preference for a strong contrast of form and color or black and white, realized by silhouetting one kind of shape against another and sometimes by juxtaposing diverse kinds of shapes: slender verticals against wide space, ragged forms against unbroken ground, irregular contours played off against smoothly outlined or straight-edged forms. Particularly interesting is the emergence at this time of a tendency to create shapes which, while justified as shadows within the representational context of drawing, assert themselves as independent, abstract forms. These strange shadows lie against the face of the Italian Leader and particularly striking in drawings, not of the Pittsburgh series but apparently slightly later . . . [Irma Jaffe, Joseph Stella (1970), p. 22].