Completed in 1883 and hailed as an engineering wonder, the Brooklyn Bridge was recognized as a symbol of the modern city by artists and writers alike. Walt Whitman, John Marin, Hart Crane, Lewis Mumford, and Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, all paid homage to this structure. The bridge was viewed as more than an icon of the industrial age, though, for its design and construction fused the new technology of its innovative cable suspension with historical references to the past: the great Gothic arches of its towers linked the Old World and the New.
Joseph Stella was twenty when he emigrated from Italy to New York. He began to study art in the United States, then traveled back to Europe in 1909, where he saw a variety of avant-garde styles. In Paris he encountered Futurism, a method of painting that attempted to express the intangible properties of motion and speed. Although he would experiment with a variety of approaches throughout his career, Stella pioneered Futurism in the United States upon his return to New York in 1912. He settled in Brooklyn in about 1919 and began to paint the bridge with this new vocabulary, using its flashing lights and rush of crisscrossed wires to indicate movement through space.
The Brooklyn Bridge became a recurring theme in Stella’s work and he became identified with the subject. He made numerous small studies of the span and five major oils; Old Brooklyn Bridge was one of the last. His richly colored, fractured composition not only reflects his modernist approach, but also recalls the stained-glass windows of Gothic architecture. Stella himself alluded to this marriage of the new and the old, describing the bridge as a “shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of AMERICA.” 
1. Joseph Stella, The Brooklyn Bridge (A Page of My Life), privately printed under the title New York (1928), quoted in Barbara Haskell, Joseph Stella (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994), 206.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
Old Brooklyn Bridge
- about 1941
- Joseph Stella, American, 1877–1946
- 193.67 x 173.35 cm (76 1/4 x 68 1/4 in.)
- Medium or Technique
- Oil on canvas
- Accession Number
- On view
- John Axelrod Gallery (American Modern: The 1920s and 30s) - 326