New on View | Olmec style carved figure

Olmec style carved figure

Olmec style, Middle Formative, , 1000–500 B.C. Chalchuapa or vicinity, El Salvador, Seated corpulent manDark green serpentine. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund (2018-70)

Unlike most small-scale Olmec style figural stonework, which present standing, sinuous bodies, this portly figure sits at ease and leans back, tilting his head to look upward. His arms rest at each side, hands on thighs. Although no indication of clothing or accoutrement is visible from the front, relief at the back confirms the figure wears a narrow loincloth—male attire. The thick lips, parted mouth, thin eyes with puffy lids, and fleshy cheeks are all typical of Middle Formative Olmec style stonework, as is the cap-like suggestion of coiffure or headgear on an elongated and backward curving head, the latter signaling intentional cranial modification, a marker of high status. Half of the figure’s bangs include incisions suggesting hair, or possibly some head adornment. The back of the head includes incisions for hair or ornament across the full nape, with a longer central projection. Asymmetrical treatment of the head may indicate the specific identity of the subject was marked in emblematic fashion—a common practice in Olmec art, including on the famous colossal heads. 

Scholars often laud Olmec sculpture in polished jadeite or other greenstone for suggesting supple flesh in hard stone and for conveying a sense of monumentality at odds with their actual scale. This work shares these qualities, granted by the pyramidal overall composition and the exceptional swelling chest and belly. Few other known Olmec stone figures are seated, and only one other is known with one leg extended and the other bent with the foot against the other leg’s calf. Modeling continues—albeit less fully developed—on the bottom of the sculpture to suggest buttocks and the bend of the leg. 

The work has suffered some damage. Most notable is the loss on the proper left side of the cranium. Although difficult to confirm, this may have been caused by an intentional deactivating blow in antiquity: many Olmec sculptures both large and small index such acts, often concentrated on the head or face, which later Mesoamerican cultures considered the dwelling place of one variety of soul. Here, the blow also focused on the side of the head with the incisions, which may have emblematically "named" the individual and may have thus been a precise target for the deactivation. 

Olmec style carved figure

View of damage on head, possibly representing an intentional act