WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Joseph Stella was fascinated by the Brooklyn Bridge. He saw it as a soaring cathedral of American design and engineering achievement, and he painted it with powerful sweeping lines and bold colors.
Sometimes the bridge seemed brooding, sometimes triumphal.
Mr. Stella was one of the first American painters to focus on urban, industrial themes and his renderings of the bridge in the first half of the 20th century became hallmarks of his career.
But there was another side of Mr. Stella, so distinctly different that the work might have been the creation of another artist. He was mad about flowers and tropical shrubs and plants, palm trees, palmettos and hardwoods, birds and butterflies.
This winter, the Norton Museum of Art is showing that other side of Mr. Stella, in an exhibition of more than 80 of his floral and botanical works, running through Jan. 15. It is a stunning display of Mr. Stella’s use of light and shadows, colors and shapes to create on canvas a tropical floral world that feels both familiar and unfamiliar, joyous and sober.
Mr. Stella got many of his ideas at the New York Botanical Garden, and he filtered them through a fantastical mind, crafting dreamy, romantic and often touching paintings of a tropical world that feels deeply spiritual.
Many of the paintings and drawings have a spare, modern feeling, which might appeal to the crowds converging nearby for Art Basel Miami Beach, from Dec. 1 through Dec. 3. The Norton itself is about a 90-minute drive or train ride from Miami.
Mr. Stella was a star in the 1920s and ’30s in art circles in New York, Paris and Rome, but his popularity faded, art historians say, because he would not stick with the urban industrial theme that first got him attention, and his floral and tropical works never ignited the same enthusiasm. In the early 1940s, his health failing, he lived mainly in a modest apartment in Astoria, Queens, cared for by relatives. He died of a heart attack in 1946 at 69.
Mr. Stella’s last major exhibition took place nearly 30 years ago at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The Norton exhibition is an introduction to Mr. Stella for many, a reintroduction for others and, the curators say, the first major show devoted to Mr. Stella’s floral and botanical works.
The exhibit, “Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature,” was organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Brandywine Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pa., a small town outside Philadelphia. It will open for three months in Atlanta in February and move to the Brandywine in June.
Mr. Stella, with his angular, moody treatments of the Brooklyn Bridge, the fire-belching steel mills of Pittsburgh and the nearby coal mines and miners — based mainly on his own impressions and feelings — was part of a small group of American painters who led a shift away from Realism and toward the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko that would flourish after World War II.
Art historians say that of the hundreds of paintings and drawings Mr. Stella created, more than 70 percent depicted his fanciful view of nature. But, they say, they were always overshadowed by his portraits of the Brooklyn Bridge.
“The bridge was a kind of cultural symbol,” said Barbara Haskell, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and one of the most respected authorities on Mr. Stella. “The flora and botanical works had less cultural resonance. I don’t think they were unsuccessful. But they didn’t capture the public imagination the way the bridge paintings did.
“People had painted flowers before,” she said. “But the bridge was revolutionary. No one had painted industry like that. The bridge was a totally new kind of image. It was a new structure for a new age. It galvanized attention”
Mr. Stella had come to New York from an Italian town south of Naples at age 18. He exhibited his first paintings in New York in 1906, when he was 29. But his first acclaim came about eight years later for “Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras,” a jarring, kaleidoscopic painting of the Brooklyn amusement park, with its roller coasters, Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, flashing lights and swarms of people. It dominated an exhibition at the Montross Gallery in 1914.
Mr. Stella showed his first Brooklyn Bridge painting and his masterpiece floral work, “Tree of My Life,” six years later, shortly after finishing them.
Mr. Stella got the inspiration for “Tree of My Life” while he was painting his first Brooklyn Bridge portrait, said Stephanie Mayer Heydt, the curator of American Art at the High Museum, in a recent discussion at the Norton.
“He’s walking in Brooklyn, and he comes across this little tree trying to grow in the shadow of a factory, wedged between the sidewalk and a building,” she said. “It is reaching for sunlight and it is thriving. And he has this epiphany: He feels like that flower. He’s an Italian immigrant. He’s left sunny Southern Italy for a new life in New York.”
“He is longing for Italy,” she said. “And he creates this sensational ‘Tree of My Life’ simultaneously, while he is also painting the bridge. You see these two crazy different styles.”
The idea for the new exhibition came from Thomas Padon, the director of the Brandywine Museum. He saw “Tree of My Life” at a collector’s home in Seattle five years ago. “I was transfixed,” Mr. Padon said.
The huge painting was one of Mr. Stella’s most complex works, busy and almost vibrating with detail. It was dark and foreboding at its base, but light and joyful in its upper reaches, crowded with fanciful flowers and shrubs, bits of color that turned out to be little songbirds, swans and herons with elongated necks reminiscent of Modigliani portraits.
The namesake olive tree rises toward the sky. At the bottom of the painting, the tree is gnarled, charred. Near the top of the canvas, it regains its youth and vitality and embraces a sunny blue sky accented with thin gold halos.
“Stella never spoke about religion,” Mr. Padon said. “But clearly there is a deep sense of spirituality in his work.”
Mr. Padon saw another of Mr. Stella’s paintings a few months later at the High Museum and, he said, the exhibition was born. Ms. Heydt, of the High Museum, agreed to lead the curation along with Audrey Lewis, the associate curator at the Brandywine.
The Norton jumped at the chance to exhibit the paintings and drawings. “There’s a real connection between the work in the show and the landscape around the museum,” said Ellen Roberts, the curator of the Norton exhibition.
To frame the exhibition in the context of Mr. Stella’s best-known work, the Norton hung one of his Brooklyn Bridge paintings and another industrial work, “Smoke Stacks.”
The painting that so enthralled Mr. Padon at the High Museum, “Purissima,” a Madonna in a paradisiacal garden with pure white herons at her sides, is also on display, along with other less complex, but no less powerful, works.
Lisa Stella McCarty, one of Mr. Stella’s grandnieces, now in her 70s, lives with her husband, Dennis, during the winter months in West Palm Beach, not far from the Norton Museum.
When Mr. Stella died, he left the bulk of his paintings and drawings to her father, Sergio. Ms. McCarty later inherited hundreds of these works. They were everywhere in her house as she was growing up, she recalled. “My whole life, I’ve been surrounded by his art.”
A portrait of a spiky, smoldering red ginger plant rising from a shadowy jungle floor hung in her parent’s living room, and she is still enraptured by it. “The depth of the color,” Ms. McCarty said, “the vermilion. It’s just screaming at me. And the deep, dark tropical foliage. I can’t take my eyes off it.” Ms. McCarty lent the ginger painting, called “Tropical Flower,” and 21 other paintings and drawings for the exhibition.
On a tour with a docent one evening in November, several people said they found “Tree of My Life,” overwhelming. To unravel its intricacies, the Norton has placed an iPad on the wall near the painting with 15 pages of interpetations of sections of the work and some excerpts from Mr. Stella’s writings.
Palmer Crippen, a horticulturist at the nearby Mounts Botanical Garden, began studying the painting in mid-October, preparing to show how Mr. Stella’s shapes and colors relate to real-life tropical plants and flowers.
“Every time I walk past it,” Mr. Crippen said. “I see something new.”