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Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
20.64 cm x 17.78 cm x 10.8 cm (8 1/8 in. x 7 in. x 4 1/4 in.)

On view


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Charles V, the Habsburg king of Spain and most of Europe in the early half of the sixteenth century, sponsored the voyages of Hernán Cortés to Mexico and Francisco Pizarro to Peru, thereby initiating a global exchange of crops, exotic animals, and precious objects. Among the objects sent back to Europe as curiosities and gifts were magnificent works made by Amerindian artisans. It is perhaps in this context that this unique mask, said to be present in Italy in the 1530s, arrived in Europe. For most of its early history, it was classified, exhibited, and published as a Chinese object belonging to the Tang dynasty. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century, when the Olmec culture was identified, that this mask was attributed to this ancient Mesoamerican civilization. Once it was identified as an American piece, the object was acquired for the Dumbarton Oaks Pre- Columbian Collection in 1960.

Fashioned of green jadeite, the mask has almond-shaped eyes with perforations, pierced nostrils, and a concave back. Although heavy, it could have been worn during ceremonies, giving the wearer an extraordinary, otherworldly visage. The downturned mouth with a flaring upper lip conveys the impression of a snarling creature, an Olmec convention for the representation of supernatural beings. As in other examples of Olmec stonework, incisions have been added to emphasize certain details such as the ears, lips, and eyebrows. It is possible that this face was meant to represent a specific deity such as the Maize God.

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Benson, Elizabeth P. 1981 Some Olmec Objects in the Robert Woods Bliss Collection at Dumbarton Oaks. In The Olmec and Their Neighbors: Essays in Memory of Matthew W. Stirling, Elizabeth P. Benson, ed., pp. 95-108. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 102, fig. 6

Benson, Elizabeth P. and Beatriz de la Fuente (EDS.) 1996 Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. National Gallery of Art, Washington. p. 241, cat. 82.

Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 234-5.

Davies, Nigel 1983 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico. Pelican Series. Penguin Books, New York. fig. 1.

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Dumbarton Oaks 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 7, cat. 31.

Dunlap, Carol 1994 The Culture Vulture: A Guide to Style, Period, and Ism. Preservation Press National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington, D.C., p. 192.

González Calderón, O. L. 1991 The Jade Lords. O.L. González Calderón, Coatzacoalcos, Ver., pl. 344.

Joralemon, Peter David 1971 A Study of Olmec Iconography. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art & Archaeology, No. 7. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington. fig. 24.

Joralemon, Peter David 1976 The Olmec Dragon: A Study in Pre-Columbian Iconography. In Origins of Religious Art & Iconography in Preclassic Mesoamerica, H. B. Nicholson, ed. Ucla Latin American Studies Series; V. 31. UCLA Latin American Center Publications, Los Angeles. p. 31, 35, fig. 2c, 5a.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1963 Robert Woods Bliss, 1875-1962. American Antiquity 29 (1). p. 93.

Millett-Gallant, Ann and Elizabeth Howie (EDS.) 2016 Disability and Art History. Interdisciplinary Disability Studies. Routledge, London and New York. p. 71, fig. 4.7.

Niederberger, Christine 1987 Paléopaysages Et Archéologie Pré-Urbaine Du Bassin De México (Mexique). 1re ed. Etudes Mésoaméricaines, V. 11. Centre d'Etudes Mexicaines et Centraméricaines, México. fig. 88.

Palmer, Jock Pegler 1967 Jade. Spring Art Books. Spring Books, London. pl. 49.

Pasztory, Esther 1998 Pre-Columbian Art. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. p. 23, 33-35, fig. 20.

Pasztory, Esther 2000 The Portrait and the Mask: Invention and Translation. In Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica, John E. Clark and Mary E. Pye, eds., pp. 342. Studies in the History of Art / Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, 58. Symposium Papers; 35. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., fig. 6.

Pasztory, Esther 2005 Thinking with Things: Toward a New Vision of Art. 1st ed. University of Texas Press, Austin. p. 183.

Pillsbury, Joanne and Kim Richter (EDS.) 2017 Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas. J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. p. 210, cat. 125.

Stuart, George E. 1993 New Light on the Olmec. In National Geographic. vol. 184. p. 115.

Stuart, George E. 2003 Die Olmeken in Neuem Licht. In National Geographic Spezial, Deutschland, pp. 154-173. vol. März 2003. p. 165.

Tate, Carolyn 2012 Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation. 1st ed. The William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere. University of Texas Press, Austin. p. 57-58, fig. 3.30.

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. 147-150, pl. 30, 30a-c.

Exhibition History
"Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 6/30 - 10/20/1996.

"Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas", The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles CA, 9/16/2017 - 1/28/2018; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY, 2/27- 5/28/2018.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Robert Stolper, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1960.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1960-1962.

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

Animals | Felines | Masks | Olmecs