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Seated Figure

Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
16.3 cm x 9.21 cm x 5.72 cm (6 7/16 in. x 3 5/8 in. x 2 1/4 in.)

Not on view


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Despite its relatively small size, this is one of the most iconographically complex objects known to have been produced by the ancient Olmec. The sculpture is in almost perfect condition, with only minor loss by chipping to the right hand. In the region of the nostrils, mouth, and headdress, there are small stains created by granules of sand. A small quantity of these grains still adheres to the right nostril of the figure. The fine incising was probably the last major step in the carving of the object, since even the final stage of polishing would partially remove the extremely shallow incision. As with many Olmec jades, the incised designs were probably enhanced with cinnabar or hematite stain. Aside from the final, rather sketchy fine line incision, the depths and widths of other carved lines vary considerably. Whereas the facial carving of the crowning trefoil element is relatively shallow, the headband of the larger figure below is in much higher relief. The cross transecting the backward turned headdress is even more deeply and broadly carved. The deep, straight lines of the headband, backcurving head element, and other portions of the statue were not carved by incision, but by sawing. Solid core drills perforated the nostrils and septum of the figure as well as the ears, which are biconically drilled. The corners of both the principal mouth and those of the crowning upper face were also carved by drilling. In addition, drills partially hollowed the areas between the thumbs and palms. Whereas much of the figure is rather blocky and planar, the face is carved entirely in the round, in striking contrast to the surmounting, plaquelike head capping the headdress.

The figure is strongly avian, with a winglike feathered cape, plumed tail, and a series of bird heads incised on portions of the costume. The sculpture displays many quadripartite divisions, possibly references to the world quarters. Great deal of the costume and iconography is devoted to maize, richly expressed by wealth items of precious feathers and jade.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1971 An Olmec Figure at Dumbarton Oaks. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology; No. 8. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C. Figs. 1-23.

Benson, Elizabeth P. and Beatriz de la Fuente 1996 Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. p. 216-217, cat. 52

Berrin, Kathleen and Virginia M. Fields 2010 Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco; Los Angeles. p. 194-195, pl. 104.

Clark, E. J. and Brooks A. Agnew 2011 The Ark of Millions of Years. 4. Authorhouse, Bloomington, IN. p. 122, fig. 14.

Coe, Michael D. 1996 The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., p. 107, 178, 281, fig. 3, 5(b).

Cortez, Constance 2007 Virginia Fields. Bomb winter (98):32-38.

Diehl, Richard A. 2004 The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. Ancient Peoples and Places; Vol. 112. Thames & Hudson, London.

Fields, Virginia M. and Dorie Reents-Budet 2005 Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Scala; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, London; Los Angeles, p. 113, cat. 16.

González Calderón, O. L. 1991 The Jade Lords. O.L. González Calderón, Coatzacoalcos, Ver., pl. 418.

Jones, Julie 2010 From the National Gallery of Art to Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru. In Adventures in Pre-Columbian Studies: Essays in Honor of Elizabeth P. Benson, Julie Jones, ed., pp. 23-48. Pre-Columbian Society of Washington D.C., Washington, D.C., p. 31, fig. 8.

Joralemon, Peter David 1971 A Study of Olmec Iconography. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology; No. 7. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 52, fig. 4c, 19c.

Joyce, Rosemary, Richard Edging, Karl Lorenz and Susan D. Gillespie 1991 Olmec Bloodletting: An Iconographic Study. In Sixth Palenque Round Table, 1986, Merle Greene Robertson and Virginia Fields, eds., pp. 143-150. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. fig. 7a

Magni, Caterina 2003 Les Olmèques: Des Origines Au Mythe. Seuil, Paris, p. 358, fig. 91

Nicholson, H. B. 1976 Origins of Religious Art and Iconography in Preclassic Mesoamerica. Ucla Latin American Studies Series; V. 31. UCLA Latin American Center Publications, Los Angeles. p. 34, 54, fig. 4c, 19c.

Niederberger, Christine 1987 Paléopaysages Et Archéologie Pré-Urbaine Du Bassin De México (Mexique). 1re éd. ed. Etudes Mésoaméricaines, V. 11. Centre d'études mexicaines et centraméricaines, México. fig. 93.

Schele, Linda 1995 The Olmec Mountain and Tree of Creation in Mesoamerican Cosmology. In The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership, pp. 105-117. The Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., fig. 5b, 12a.

Soustelle, Jacques 1979 Les Olmèques: La Plus Ancienne Civilisation Du Mexique. Arthaud, Paris. p. 171, pl. 57, 58, 65.

Soustelle, Jacques 1984 The Olmecs: The Oldest Civilization in Mexico. Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., p. 176-177.

Tate, Carolyn E. 1999 Patrons of Shamanic Power: La Venta's Supernatural Entities in Light of Mixe Beliefs. Ancient Mesoamerica 10:169-188. fig. 15.

Taube, Karl A. 1996 The Olmec Maize God: The Face of Corn in Formative Mesoamerica. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 29/30:39-81. fig. 8a.

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. 105-21, pl. 18.

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

"Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, 9/9/2005 - 1/8/2006; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX, 2/12/2006 - 5/7/2006; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, 6/11/2006 - 9/10/2006.

"Flights of Fancy: Birds in Pre-Columbian Art" Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2009 - 2/28/2010.

"Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico", Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, 10/2/2010 - 1/9/2011; de Young, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, 2/19/ - 5/8/2011.

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

"75 Years/75 Objects", Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 9/8/2015 to 5/22/2016.

Acquisition History
Purchased by Dumbarton Oaks from Alphonse Jax, New York (dealer), 1970

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

Anthropomorphic | Olmecs