Hartley’s Popocatepetl set to explode at Selkirk

The Mexican volcano, Popocatepetl, looks angry in a circa 1932-33 rust red painting by renowned American painter Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). The painting is Lot 109 at the Jan. 9 Selkirk Auctioneers’ Premier Gallery. It has a conservative pre-sale estimate at $150,000-$200,000.


Bryan Laughlin will probably never forget Lot 109 of the upcoming Jan. 9 auction at Selkirk Auctioneers’ Elite Gallery Auction. As Executive Director and Curator of the auction house located a few blocks from the Mississippi River. Lot 109 is an important untitled oil on canvass done by Marsden Hartley (American, 1877-1943), depicting the robust clouds and rocky terrain surrounding the peak of one of Mexico’s great volcanos, Popocatepetl. The name, Popocatepetl, means “it smokes.”

And when was the last time Popocatepetl smoked? It was on Jan. 9, 2020 (109 the same as the lot number), Laughlin found out the day after assigning lot numbers for the auction. “I hope it erupts again … of course, at auction,” Laughlin quips. “It has been in the same family about 40 years. They knew they had something of value, but I don’t think they knew the  importance of this piece in art history.”

Hartley painted four versions of Popocatepetl. Three of the paintings are oil on board, primarily consisting of cobalt blues and bright whites. These were exhibited February 1933 in Mexico City to celebrate the completion of Hartley’s Guggenheim Fellowship. One of the paintings is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, another is The Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the third sold at Sotheby’s in 2012 for $392,500.

Selkirk Auctions has put a “conservative” pre-sale estimate of $150,000- $200,000.

“We, here at Selkirk, feel very privileged to make such an important re-discovery in the world of art history,” Laughlin said. “It was known that this fourth painting existed, but it was unknown where. It was initially given by the artist to a friend and fellow painter.” However, this painting is very different from the other three. The painting for auction on Jan. 9 is an oil on canvass, it is larger than the other 3 at 28 by 30 inches, and a palette of rust red, azure blue & white offer a more tumultuous and powerful painting.

“It’s a clearly more powerful image,” Laughlin says. “It has, I think, more of a sacred and mystical appeal.”

The painting will be included in an upcoming catalogue raisonne by Distinguished Professor at Bates College and Hartley Scholar Gail R. Scott, who describes his work as “visionary mountain portraits coincided with his continuing involvement with mysticism.”

It was with mixed feelings that Hartley arrived in Mexico City in March of 1932. His enthusiasm for completing the painting, underwritten by the Guggenheim Foundation, was broad sided by the death of his good friend, writer Hart Crane who committed suicide at the age of 32. Ironically, Crane had visited Mexico the previous year on a Guggenheim Fellowship.
In grief and increasingly dissatisfied with the accommodations in Mexico City, Hartley traveled south some 45 miles and discovered “the majestic rise of Popocatepetl always in snow and certainly one of the handsomest of the volcanoes of the world …an almost flawless triangle.”

Hartley, who was also a poet and essay writer, was a great believer in the occult, and as Scott maintains, Hartley’s infatuation with the volcanic landscape along with his study of visionary writings built upon his intention to “reveal the convert, occult forces vested in the earth itself.”

Hartley’s close friend and fellow artist, Carl Sprinchorn (1997-1971), who was  given the painting by the artist, has been quoted as saying the painting was a “recollection,” which may account for its absence in the Mexico City exhibition.

Selkirk will also be selling several Hudson River Valley paintings from the mid-19th century, a Montague Dawson maritime oil and a bronze sculpture by Alexander Archipenko, mixed in with fine period furniture, decorative arts and jewelry from national collections.

Contact: (314) 696-9041 www.selkirkauctions.com