The Olmec who lived in the coastal swamps of the southern Gulf of Mexico at the turn of the first millennium B.C. established many of the cultural patterns built upon by subsequent Mesoamerican peoples. Monumental sculptures in volcanic rock, delicately carved ritual objects in jade, and carefully crafted figures and vessels in clay are their chief sculptural legacy. Olmec ceramic vessels—ranging from elegant, simple forms with well-finished surfaces to sculpted naturalistic effigies to those with complex carved or incised imagery—have survived in large numbers. This straight-sided blackware bowl features a long-beaked bird and a scroll design in low relief. The contrast in surface texture lends the vessel special appeal.
In 1955, Nelson Rockefeller and René d'Harnoncourt flew to Los Angeles visiting art galleries and paying particular attention to Precolumbian art dealers. Earl Stendahl of the Stendahl Galleries in Hollywood, a pioneer in the sale of both California Impressionist painting and Precolumbian art, had dealt in ancient American art for twenty years, and the New Yorkers found much that appealed to them at the gallery; this black Olmec bowl with a profile image of a long-beaked bird was one.