• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 2005

    Latin American Sale Evening Session

    28 - 29 May 2008, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 47

    Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo Mexican 1875-1964)


    Price Realised  


    Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo Mexican 1875-1964)
    signed 'Dr. Atl' (lower right)
    oil, Atl Color (solid resin-based pigments) and tempera on wood panel
    28 x 24 in. (71 x 61 cm.)
    Painted ca. 1958.

    Contact Client Service
    • info@christies.com

    • New York +1 212 636 2000

    • London +44 (0)20 7839 9060

    • Hong Kong +852 2760 1766

    • Shanghai +86 21 6355 1766

    This lot is sold with a certificate of authenticity from the Fundación Andrés Blaisten dated March 10, 2008 and will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné currently being prepared under archive 58-03.

    With characteristic flourish, Diego Rivera, Atl's student at the San Carlos Academy, expressed his influential role for younger artists, and his multi-faceted role as teacher, intellectual, writer and political activist thus:

    ...he championed the divisionism of post-Impressionist color. he taught the youth insolence, writer of prose and poetry, expert in volcanoes, botanist, miner, herbalist, astrologist, magician, materialist and totalitarian. (1) (Author's translation)

    This dramatic late self-portrait typifies the ways in which Atl fashioned his own image as inextricably linked to the volcanic Mexican landscape he studied and loved for most of his life. Since the time of the Aztecs, this particular landscape has been linked to a sense of place, which after Independence became a symbol of the Mexican nation. Indeed the artist's pseudonym--"Dr. Atl", "water" in Nahuatl--was an integral part of his self-presentation as a national artist, promoter of folk art, reformer of artistic training, writer and expert on volcanoes.(2)

    As McKinley Helm wrote in 1941, just one year before Atl constructed a home facing Popocatéptl, allowing him to focus on his pictorial obsession: the landscape of the Valley of Mexico, self-portraits were the key facet of his oeuvre:

    Dr. Atl has painted scores of self-portraits. A typical Atl for a comprehensive Mexican collection would be one of the self-portraits with Popocatéptl in the background. It should be executed in either Atl-color or charcoal, because in these media Atl does his most personal works.(3)

    This 1958 Self-Portrait is executed with his renowned Atl-colors, the exact composition of which is a subject of debate. They have been defined as a:
    technique and medium of his own invention. First he produced small drawing sticks made of resin, wax, ground, and melted pigments, which he called "atlcolors" (similar to oil pastels). These colors were used on a dry, textured surface, previously prepared with successive layers of zinc and glue, watercolor wash, and a wax-and resin-based varnish.(4)

    However unlike familiar portraits by Rembrandt, Goya, Picasso, or Frida Kahlo, among many others, Atl chooses not to set his image within his studio. Rather, he places himself at the foreground, with a backdrop of the landscape to which he devoted his life, as a volcanologist and artist. In addition to publishing books about volcanoes, he wrote and illustrated a book of poetry on this subject.

    Atl depicts himself late in life, bust-length and turned part way as if to address the viewer. His arm is raised, suspended in a gesture suggesting he is in the midst of painting Popocatéptl and its surroundings. As in the landscape Iztaccíhuatl (see lot 46) painted the same year, Atl portrays a dramatic moment in which a grey stormy sky contrasts with the vibrant hues of the clouds, valley, volcanoes, and his own garb.

    Atl emphasizes his mastery of artistic technique, and his preferred subject, in several ways. His voluminous beard, intense gaze and purplish cape lend him a majestic air of a biblical prophet. The repertoire of tracing, application of color, and levels of intensity of hue that he uses in the picture calls attention to the hand of the artist. This is visible for example in the loose handling on the detail of his billowing sleeve, or in the hatching he uses in the sky and landscape. His brush is pointed towards himself in a self-reflexive nature that suggests his own meditation on the act of painting. Atl here is coming full-circle, perhaps thinking of his Self-portrait of 1900, which won him a prize at the Paris Salon, and where he places himself seated in the foreground, but facing in the opposite direction as in the later picture.(5) Finally, the rainbow that is visible above his head, crowning him, must be a reference to his Atl-colors that fuse with his own likeness and the image of his beloved landscape to sum up his life's work.

    Dr. Miriam Basilio, Assistant Professor of Art History and Museum Studies, New York University

    1) ...campeonó el divisionismo del color neoimpressionista...enseño a ser insolentes a todos los jóvenes, se demostró prosista y poeta, vulcanólogo, botánico, minero, yerbero, astrólogo, hechicero, materialista, totalitarista... Diego Rivera, "La increíble historia del Dr. Atl," in El mito de dos volcanes: Popocatéptl y Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 2005, 91.
    2) L. M. Messinger "Luminous Morning, Valley of Mexico, 1942," catalogue entry in Mexico: Splendors of Twenty Centuries, New York: The Metropolitan Museum Art and Bullfinch Press, 1990, 559.
    3) M. Helm, Modern Mexican Painters, New York: Dover, 1969, reprint 1941, Harper & Brothers, 11
    4) Messinger, op cit, 562.
    5) For a discussion of the 1900 Self-Portrait, see J. A. Manrique "La Pintura del Dr. Atl" in Dr. Atl.: Conciencia y paisaje, 1875-1964, [exh. cat.], Mexico City: UNAM, INBA, 1985, 37-38.


    By descent to the present owners.

    Pre-Lot Text