Among the most celebrated Olmec works in fired clay—the finest are made of ivory-colored kaolin as is this example—are large, masterfully sculpted, hollow, sexless human figures displaying infantile characteristics. Usually seated with splayed legs and hands on thighs, these figures have the posture, body proportions, and fleshiness of human babies. However, they are not merely depictions of human infants: some have the mass and powerful build of an adult, are embellished with symbolic designs on their bodies, and wear distinctive headdresses as seen here. Infants are a frequent theme in Olmec art, although why is unclear.
In the late second millennium B.C., the influence of the Olmec peoples of the Gulf Coast reached into the highlands of central Mexico, where this figure is said to have originated at a site known today as Las Bocas. The figure, of a type often called a "baby figure," was included in an important loan exhibition of Olmec ceramic works that was organized at the Museum of Primitive Art in 1965, The Jaguar's Children: Pre-Classic Central Mexico. The jaguar is the largest feline animal native to the Americas, and certain of its features had a profound effect on the beliefs and imagery of the ancient peoples of the hemisphere.
[Everett Rassiga, New York, until 1965]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1965, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1965–1978
Coe, Michael D. and Sophie D. "Pre-classic central Mexico." In The Jaguar's Children. New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1965, 16, also on cover, AR.1999.2.50, MPA archives, exhibition documents.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 558.
Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 164.
Newton, Douglas, Julie Jones, and Kate Ezra. The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987, no. 82, p. 115.
Watts, Edith. The art of ancient Mexico and Peru: Teachers' packet. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990, 13, p. 15.
Coe, Michael D., ed. The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 1996, p. 137, 1.
Pillsbury, Joanne. "The Pan-American: Nelson Rockefeller and the Arts of Ancient Latin America." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Vol. 72 (2014), p. 26, 30, 31.