PROPERTY FROM THE ROBERT BRADY MUSEUM FOUNDATION
When Marsden Hartley received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931, the requirement was that the fellowship year be spent abroad, and his country of choice was Mexico. Two reasons for this decision emerge in his letters to his friend and patron, Adelaide Kuntz, written in the months prior to his departure: "to do a study of Popocatepetl just because I've always thought it was handsome in reproduction" and to get into sunlit country again "where light and sun vie with each other and create excitement," adding, "I love that mystical burning look in a stretch of landscape - it is the only light that is really perfect." [i]
Popocatépetl, one of Mexico's tallest mountains and most active volcanoes, lies 43 miles southeast of Mexico City, from where it can be seen rising dramatically up in classical conical form--a view that thrilled Hartley upon his arrival in Mexico City in March 1932 when he told Kuntz he could have mountains "for breakfast lunch & dinner - so grand - simple & symphonic." The mountains and the volcanoes, "superb in their perpetual witness," were worth coming for, he told her and "I expect it all to give me a strong clutch in finer truths." [ii]
Popocatépetl is also visible from Cuernavaca where Hartley lived and painted between May and November 1932. There, from a white-washed garage he had at his disposal as a studio, across a garden carpeted with flowers and blue morning glories, "the majestic rise of Popocatepetl" greeted him on clear days and he began "doing several notions" of the volcano. Eventually there would be four paintings of the motif, three of which were included in the exhibition at the end of his fellowship year at the Galeria de la Escuela Central de Artes Plasticas in Mexico City, February 29-March 7, 1933. In the exhibition brochure, the Robert Brady Museum version, listed separately (catalog no. 20) from the other two, is titled Pequeño panneau decorative del Popocatepetl, probably because of its smaller size and horizontal format. Popocatepetl, One Morning (no. 7, as Popocatepetl. Una mañana) and Popocatepetl, Spirited Morning - Mexico (no. 8 as Popocatepetl. Mañana marvillosa) are both larger and nearly square in format (approximately 25 x 30 inches). [iii]
Although smaller, Popocatépetl is as stunning and chromatically brilliant as its companion pieces in the exhibition. The palette is simple: a deep, intense celestial blue in the sky with a range of whites in pink, grey, and blue opalescent hues in the cloud bank surrounding the volcano as well, as in the snow at the speak and the steam cloud erupting above it. The color harmonies in Hartley's scale of whites derives, it seems, from a handful of raw opals he had come across, which "contained the whole of Mexico in them" and were for him "exercises in tonal scale" that he hoped to capture in the paintings. [iv]
The clarity and luminescence in the Popocatépetl paintings confirm Hartley's original intent for coming to Mexico--to create excitement through light that he characterized as mystical. He was dropping all blacks and browns, he explained, in exchange for "prismatics." The pictures were "gayer and more exciting to the eye." Mexico gave him the conditions and opportunity to return to his mystical roots. To paint "just nature," he told Adelaide Kuntz, was silly and idle; what he wanted as a release from the "perverse belief that [he] could be a realist." Indeed, Popocatépetl is not the result of what he deemed "mere optical observation." Rather it embodies what he saw as a mystical "burning" he had never before felt. [v] Anticipating his later Mt. Katahdin paintings, Hartley's rendering of Popocatépetl is a product not so much of naturalistic observation as of the imagination--iconic and grand in its simplicity of design and color.
[i] Letters from Hartley to Adelaide Kuntz from Gloucester, MA, September 29, 1931 and December 2, 1931, respectively, Archives of American Art (hereafter AAA).
[ii] Letter from Hartley to Adelaide Kuntz from Mexico City, March 14, 1932, AAA
[iii] Popocatepetl, One Morning is now in the Sheldon Memorial Museum, University of Nebraska, Lincoln and Popocatepetl, Spirited Morning - Mexico in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. The fourth painting in the series, as recorded by Elizabeth McCausland in her unfinished catalogue raisonné of Hartley's work, is untitled, unsigned 28 x 29 inches, and at the time owned by Hartley's friend and fellow painter, Carl Sprinchorn, who told McCausland he thought Hartley may have painted it after leaving Mexico--as a recollection; McCausland thought this plausible since she reports it to be less vibrant in color than the other three.
[iv] Letter from Hartley to Adelaide Kuntz from Cuernavava, August 24, 1932, AAA.
[v] Letters from Hartley to Adelaide Kuntz from Cuernavaca, July 23 and July 28, 1932, AAA.
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