Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Female Figure

12th–10th century B.C.
Mexico, Mesoamerica
H. 2 15/16 in. (7.5 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
Not on view
This solid, hand-modeled ceramic figurine is reddish buff in color. Its short arms are splayed to the sides and the legs are spread far apart. A tiny navel and small breasts are indicated on the front of the figure, and a skirt with hem continues to the backside. Pendant-like ears (?) flare slightly to either side of the face, and a fairly elaborate panel of hair with incised striations adorns the elongated head.

Sculpted some three millennia ago in the Valley of Mexico, this figurine belongs to a group of ceramic effigies known collectively as the Tlatilco "pretty ladies." Depicting females with large heads, small waists, and prominent hips, these handheld sculptures present a fairly standardized body type and are typically fired to red, buff, or brown tones. As the popular embodiments of an ideal feminine form, the Tlatilco "pretty ladies" are part of a centuries-long tradition in which eccentricities and religious imagery predominate. Featuring hunchbacks, dwarfs, contorted acrobats, two-headed women, and conjoined twins, the corpus of Tlatilco figurines encompasses the full gamut of human representation.

For generations, Tlatilco was a small farming community located on the fringes of modern-day Mexico City. By the early twentieth century, however, the fields of clay surrounding Tlatilco had become important sites of brick production utilized in the construction and rapid expansion of the nearby Federal District. In 1936, brick workers began unearthing troves of ceramic figurines—later termed "pretty ladies"—that closely resembled others recently discovered by the archaeologist George C. Vaillant (1930). Using what little contextual information he had available to him, Vaillant accurately attributed these works to the Early to Middle Preclassic-period Zacatenco culture (ca. 1500–600 B.C.)--an umbrella term which also included the people of Tlatilco.

Beginning in the 1940s, archaeologists began to study the site of Tlatilco in earnest. Led by the renowned artist, ethnologist, and art historian Miguel Covarrubias, federally funded excavations helped to expose hundreds of ancient burials containing not only "pretty lady" figurines but also rich collections of polychrome pottery, carved jade, and stone tools. The enormous number of durable, finely made objects enabled Covarrubias to establish a more comprehensive typology of Tlatilco works than was previously possible. Through his comparisons of the local ceramic tradition with that of the contemporary Olmec culture, Covarrubias (1957) was able to document a large-scale incursion of Gulf Coast peoples into the area of Tlatilco sometime during the Late Preclassic period (ca. 600 B.C.). As a result, scholars now recognize the Tlatilco people as central players in the interregional, multi-ethnic cultural exchange that came to characterize Central Mexican Highland cultural interactions for the next several centuries.

To view Covarrubias’ original drawings of "pretty lady" figurines, which are preserved in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, see 2014.244.15, 2014.244.18a–c, and 2014.244.19a, b.

William T. Gassaway, 2014–15 Sylvan C. Coleman and Pamela Coleman Fellow


Resources and Additional Reading

Covarrubias, Miguel. Indian Art of Mexico and Central America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

Nicholson, Henry B. "Major Sculpture in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Gordon F. Eckholm and Ignacio Bernal, Part I: 92–134. 10. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Taube, Karl. Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2004.

Vaillant, George C. Excavations at Zacatenco. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 32, part 1. New York, 1930.
Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1961–1978

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