Stella Funestra (The Evil Star)
Elihu Vedder’s Stella Funesta (The Evil Star) captures the somber ambivalence of the Gilded Age. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, America enjoyed unprecedented material comfort, rapidly growing cities, and an expanded border westward. This prosperous and modernizing culture was also haunted by the ghosts of the recent past. The rift left by the Civil War, the Plains Indian Wars, economic and social upheaval, and a crisis of faith in the age of Darwin contributed to a mood of nostalgic melancholy in this period, called The American Renaissance.
Painter, book illustrator, and poet Elihu Vedder was the consummate artist of the period; he worked in a variety of media and created works that perfectly captured the eclecticism and relationship to the past at this moment in American history. Born in 1836 in New York City, he spent his childhood in Cuba before returning to Schenectady, New York, and eventually continued his studies in Paris. From France, he traveled through, and eventually settled in, Italy, and Italian art remained a lifelong interest for the artist.
One can see the influence of Italian Renaissance art, especially that of Michelangelo’s Sybil figures on the Sistine Chapel, in Vedder’s sketch of Stella Funesta. One of a series of sketches that the artist prepared depicting allegorical nudes set into architectural spaces, the figure sits in an orbiting star and gestures with a comet, a portentous symbol of change. Her downcast gaze, jaggedly animated fabric, and the foreboding face at the center of the wheel all suggest a pessimistic outlook. Though the mural project for which Vedder created these sketches was never completed, they may have been intended for a pavilion at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.