Joseph Stella, "The Only Worthy Artist in America"

By 1924 Valentine Dudensing had been manager of the Dudensing Galleries — his father’s gallery — for four years. During this time he gradually introduced the work of younger artists to the conservative exhibition program which had predominantly featured traditional paintings and watercolors by 19th-century European and American artists since the gallery opened two decades earlier. That October Dudensing included Joseph Stella’s most recent work, Dance of Spring (Song of the Birds), 1924, in a group exhibition of American artists. The dealer was rewarded for his efforts when the painting was reproduced both in The New York Times Magazine (Oct. 12, 1924) and later in color on the cover of International Studio magazine in August 1925.

Joseph Stella, Dance of Spring (Song of the Birds), 1924, 43 3/8 x 32 3/8 inches. Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO. Included in a group exhibition at the Dudensing Galleries in October 1924, Dance of Spring was sold by Valentine Dudensing to New York collector Adolph Lewisohn in April 1926.

This attention was not surprising. By 1924 Stella’s reputation was well established in New York where he first arrived from Italy in 1896. Nostalgic for his home country, he returned to Italy in 1909 for an extended stay. Stella traveled to Paris in 1911 where, dazzled by the innovations of the Fauvists, Cubists, and Futurists, he ended up staying for over a year. There he attended the Futurists’ exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in February 1912 and became friendly with Gino Severini whose dynamic style and large-scale paintings greatly impacted Stella.

Joseph Stella returned to New York in late 1912 just in time to submit paintings to the Armory Show which accepted two of his still-lifes. After a retrospective of 100 works at the Italian National Club in April 1913, Stella gained notoriety and acclaim as his paintings were shown nearly continuously in exhibitions in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, Worcester and Northampton, Massachusetts throughout the war years and into the early 1920s. Endorsed by Katherine Dreier, who showed his work at the Société Anonyme in 1923, and critic Henry McBride, that year Stella was famously deemed by the British painter, Augustus John, to be "the only worthy artist in America."

Joseph Stella,  Tree of My Life , 1919, 83 1/2 x 75 1/2 inches. Private Collection. This painting was sold by Dudensing to Carl Weeks in 1925.

Joseph Stella, Tree of My Life, 1919, 83 1/2 x 75 1/2 inches. Private Collection. This painting was sold by Dudensing to Carl Weeks in 1925.

Capitalizing on the enthusiasm for the Stella included in his group show, Valentine Dudensing organized a solo exhibition which opened at the Dudensing Galleries in April 1925. Though it featured only seven paintings, the show was a remarkable success both for the artist and the dealer. Stella’s fantastic subjects executed in his signature saturated color were dramatically lit with spotlights and glowed against the gallery’s dark wall hangings. Three of the works on view were oversized and startling to gallery-goers who were accustomed to the venue’s typical fare of small- to medium-sized landscapes and figural subjects. At nearly 7 feet tall by over six feet wide, for example, the breathtaking Tree of My Life, 1919, was unlike anything ever shown before at the gallery. Dudensing sold the painting to Carl Weeks, head of the Armand Company, the country’s leading maker of cold cream. The purchase likely inspired the Des Moines-based collector, who met and befriended the artist, to commission another large-scale work, resulting in Apotheosis of the Rose of 1926.

Joseph Stella,  Apotheosis of the Rose , 1926, 84 x 47 inches. Private Collection. Commissioned by Carl Weeks for his new home, Salisbury House, in Des Moines, Iowa, this painting was included in the first solo exhibition of Stella’s work at the Valentine Gallery in April 1926.

Joseph Stella, Apotheosis of the Rose, 1926, 84 x 47 inches. Private Collection. Commissioned by Carl Weeks for his new home, Salisbury House, in Des Moines, Iowa, this painting was included in the first solo exhibition of Stella’s work at the Valentine Gallery in April 1926.

The Dudensing Galleries exhibition of spring 1925 is credited with vaulting Stella’s career to a “new level of eminence” but the artist also deserves credit for playing a role in establishing Valentine Dudensing’s reputation and possibly inspiring him to open his own gallery. Stella’s jewel-like palette reflects the School of Paris paintings that undoubtedly inspired him; likewise, the School of Paris paintings that Dudensing showed for the next two decades were the reason for the Valentine Gallery’s success and renown. The dealer opened the Valentine Gallery ten months later and among his first shows presented Stella’s recent paintings. He organized two more solo exhibitions — November-December 1931 and January 1935 — and included the artist’s work in numerous group shows over the years.

Joseph Stella, Undine (Ondine), 1924-25, 36 x 38 inches. Private Collection. Included in the April 1925 show at the Dudensing Galleries, Undine was sold by Dudensing to Stephen C. Clark probably in the spring of 1926.

Joseph Stella,  The Birth of Venus , 1925, 85 x 53 inches. Current Location Unknown. Included in the April 1925 exhibition at the Dudensing Galleries, this was acquired from the artist by Carl Weeks.

Joseph Stella, The Birth of Venus, 1925, 85 x 53 inches. Current Location Unknown. Included in the April 1925 exhibition at the Dudensing Galleries, this was acquired from the artist by Carl Weeks.