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Portrait Head

Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
9.53 cm x 6.67 cm x 6.03 cm (3 3/4 in. x 2 5/8 in. x 2 3/8 in.)

Not on view


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Attributed to highland Puebla, this piece appears to have been broken off of a relatively large statuette. The concern with the subtle form and dimensions of the face suggests that this is a portrait of an actual individual. Nonetheless, a number of Olmec conventions were still applied; among the most noteworthy is the carving of the mouth. The perimeter of the mouth is delineated by an incised line, thereby accentuating the full and rounded lips. In addition, the corners of the mouth are marked by drilling. Drill holes were frequently employed for orientation and sighting by the artist, serving as guides for proportion and depth of carving. Although used in the manufacturing process, such holes at the corners of the mouth were surely retained for their aesthetic value as well. The nostrils of the portrait head here are also marked by drilling and the earlobes are entirely pierced by the same technique. The eye orbits are deeply carved and rough in the interior; they probably once contained an inlay of shell or some other material. The eyebrows are unusually sharp and pronounced, particularly in the area above the nose. As in the case of many Middle Formative Olmec sculptures, this head exhibits considerable cranial modification, with the elongated cranium appearing narrower than the lower face. Two locks of hair hang in front of the ears, and at the back of the head the coiffure extends to the nape of the neck. Although much of the carved detail of the hair is effaced by erosion, the remains of a central part can be detected at the top of the head, with other incised lines in the area above the ears.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 5, cat. 17.

González Calderón, O. L. 1991 The Jade Lords. O.L. González Calderón, Coatzacoalcos, Ver., fig. 208.

Taube, Karl A. 2004 Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks; No. 2. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 54-5, pl. 3.

Townsend, Richard F. (ED.) 1992 The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago. no. 208.

Exhibition History
"The Ancient Americas: Art from Secret Landscapes", Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, 10/10/1992 - 1/3/1993; Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, 2/14 - 4/18/1993; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, 6/6 - 8/15/1993.

"Lasting Impressions: Body Art in the Ancient Americas" , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2011 - 3/4/2012.

Acquisition History
Purchased from John A. Stokes Jr., New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1961.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1961-1962.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Anthropomorphic | Olmecs