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Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
11.11 cm x 13.34 cm x 2.86 cm (4 3/8 in. x 5 1/4 in. x 1 1/8 in.)

Not on view


This masquette is carved from a dark olive green poryphyry mottled with pale brown inclusions. In spite of its rather shallow relief, the piece conveys a strongly sculptural, almost muscular quality with gently rounded masses marked with broad and shallow indentations, an effect further enhanced by the gleaming, polished surfaces. The masquette was carved using a variety of techniques, including drilling, string sawing, and broad and fine line incision. Along with supplying suspension holes at the sides of the masquette, solid core drills also carved the six shallow whisker holes on the cheeks as well as two indentations on the upper lip. A series of eleven minute holes were drilled near the right corner of the mouth, with two others on the opposing side. Although clearly intentional, the meaning of these curious holes remains unknown. The hole closest to the right corner of the mouth contains an iron pyrite inlay, and it is quite possible that other portions of the sculpture - such as the whisker holes, eyes, and the projecting central element - were also inlaid with iron pyrite, which would beautifully complement the dark stone. The corners of the mouth were carved with large, solid core drills. The better preserved proper right side of the mouth suggests that the mouth corners were opened by string sawing, beginning in the region of the large holes. Fine line incision defines large rounded masses and delineates the nose and portions of the upwardly projecting central element. The slightly concave back of the masquette is entirely smooth.

Although at first sight the masquette may appear to be a pendant, it was probably a diadem tied to the center of the brow. Along with a biconically drilled hole behind the projecting central element, two pairs of suspension holes are placed at the sides, indicating that the item was probably bound against the body. Moreover, the smooth and gently concave back is well-suited to fit comfortably against the brow.

The masquette has been generally interpreted as a jaguar face lacking the lower jaw however; this masquette also displays a major avian component. Along with the frontal jaguar face, there are two profile bird heads facing away from the center, with each jaguar eye doubling as the eye of the bird. The strange, curving corners of the jaguar mouth double as the pendulous, raptorial beaks of the bird profiles. In addition, the lower set of suspension holes serves as the nostrils for the beaks. The projecting central element is an avian crest. Its sinuous profile is identical to Olmec representations of feathered crests, including examples appearing with anthropomorphic figures possessing both avian and feline attributes. Therefore, this object could well refer to a composite being.

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. 15.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian institution, Washington, D.C., p. 27, cat. 131.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by Samuel K. Lothrop, William F. Foshag, and Joy Mahler. Phaidon, New York. p. 235, cat. 18, pl. X..

Eggebrecht, Arne (ED.) 1986 Glanz Und Untergang Des Alten Mexico: Die Azteken Und Ihre Vorläufer. P. von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein. cat. 10.

Ries, Maurice Ruddell (ED.) 1942 Ancient American Art, 500 B.C.-A.D. 1500; the Catalog of an Exhibit of the Art of the Pre-European Americas, April-June 1942, Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara. cat. 90.

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. 175-8, pl. 38.

Townsend, Richard F. (ED.) 1992 The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago. p. 128.

Exhibition History
"Ancient American Art", Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA, April - June 1942; M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA, July - August 1942; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, OR, September - October 1942 (catalogue # 90).

"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to May 1948, November 1952 to April 1956, September 1960 to July 1962.

"Die Azteken und ihre Vorlaufer: Glanz und Untergang des Alten Mexico", Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, Germany, 6/30 - 11/9/1986; Ausstellungsleitung Haus derKunst, Munich, Germany, 12/6/1986 - 3/6/1987; Ober'sterreichisches Landesmuseum, Linz, Austria 4/3 - 8/2/1987; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, 8/15 - 11/30/1987; Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Historie, Brussels, Belgium, 12/1/1987 - 3/30/1988; National Archaeology Museum, Athens, Gerece, 5/16 - 7/21/1988; Société du Palais de la Civilisation, Montreal, Canada, 7/30 - 10/30/1988.

"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.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1941.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1941-1962.

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

Birds | Felines | Masks | Olmecs