Marsden Hartley masterwork rediscovered after three generations in private collection



Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers will kick off 2021 with its Premier Gallery Auction January 9th and the most anticipated lot is certain to be an important oil on canvas of one of Mexico’s great volcanos, Popocatépetl, by visionary American Modernist, Marsden Hartley (American, 1877 – 1943). As noted by Selkirk Executive Director, Bryan Laughlin, “The Hartley painting has a wonderful story and provenance which will captivate bidders just as much as the dynamic canvas itself.”

For the Selkirk team, the story all started bubbling to the surface with an email. When Laughlin saw the images attached, he jumped into action. A phone call and a meeting later, the painting which had been in the same private family for nearly 70 years and three generations, was being researched and photographed. Selkirk tapped Sarah B. Cunningham of Walker-Cunningham Fine Art for her cataloguing of this lot and subsequent essay.

Although born in Maine, Hartley traveled extensively throughout his career, and it was during his travels to Mexico on the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932-33 that he had a view of the famous landmark Popocatépetl volcano from his studio in Cuernavaca. Selkirk research revealed Hartley painted only four works in the Popocatépetl volcano motif for the Mexico City exhibit at the completion of the fellowship. Two of Hartley’s Popocatépetl paintings are now in museum collections: Popocatépetl, One Morning (The Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, NE) and Popocatépetl, Spirited Morning– Mexico (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC). The third Popocatépetl work was sold at Sotheby’s in November 2012. All three were oil on board and primarily composed of blue and white.

Selkirk’s lot 109 represents the fourth and largest format of the subject, as well as the only work on canvas. Also setting it apart, as noted in the essay, is the palette of rust red, azure blue and white with a foreground of undulating lines perhaps representing the lava flows that he described as “the best kind of geologic theatre.” Laughlin comments the work is “more sacred and mystical” than the other three. Once a gift from Hartley to friend and fellow artist, Carl Sprinchorn (1897-1971), this canvas is also the last to be located since it was cataloged by art critic, writer and historian Elizabeth McCausland in 1945. Cunningham found that bedrock of information in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This rediscovered painting will now be included in the forthcoming Marsden Hartley Legacy Project: Paintings and Works on Paper, at Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine. Selkirk gratefully acknowledges with appreciation the assistance of recognized Hartley Scholar, Gail R. Scott, who is manager of the Project for her assistance and review of the cataloguing.

Selkirk’s team look forward to welcoming interested bidders to the downtown St Louis Gallery located at 555 Washington Avenue. The auction will include 200+ lots featuring Hudson River Valley paintings, a Montague Dawson maritime oil, and a bronze sculpture by Alexander Archipenko mixed among the period furniture, decorative arts, and jewelry from national collections.

The full catalog for the Premier Gallery Auction may be viewed online, For further information, please contact [email protected] or call 314.696.9041.