The Olmec art style was the major prestige style of Ancient Mesoamerica between c. 1,500 BCE and 400 BCE, or much of the Mesoamerican Formative (Preclassic) period (or c. 1500–400 BCE calibrated). Scholars have successfully defined the stylistic elements of Olmec art, the most important of which is the tendency to exhibit a monumentality of form in objects of all sizes, including small portable objects. This monumentality is accomplished largely through a focus on essential forms and smooth surfaces. Olmec artists were interested mainly in the general human form and certain supernatural creatures. Humans and supernaturals were represented in assured and highly conventionalized forms, with a great interest in general naturalism but little interest in the small detail. What details there are tend to define specific supernatural traits, specific elements of elite costume, and at times gender. There is little interest in a setting or background; the surrounding urban space seems to have provided the context understood by the audience, at least in the case of monumental art. Olmec art style was not defined until the mid-20th century. In addition to an art style, the term “Olmec” is often used to define a civilization. This has led to some confusion surrounding the term, as noted by numerous scholars. In many sources, Olmec is shorthand for the civilization that arose in the lowlands of southern Veracruz and Tabasco during the Formative period. These sites, the first urban capitals in Ancient Mesoamerica, produced a rich corpus of monumental and portable art that serves as the basis for the definition of the art style. The art style is not limited to this “heartland” area, however, and its appearance elsewhere has sparked vigorous debate on the nature of the heartland Olmec relation with other Mesoamerican peoples.
An enormous number of works treat Olmec art, but few of these focus solely on the art. Instead, most overviews conflate the art style and the iconography found in the urban capitals to say something about the rise of civilization in the Ancient Americas. While Olmec art found in the early urban capitals may be used as evidence for theories of the advent of complex civilization, a significant amount of Olmec art seems to have been found outside these cities, and it is doubtful that provincial objects should be used as evidence for the rise of urbanity without significant corollary relations (see San Lorenzo Fine Ceramics and Mesoamerica for a key case where these matters are tested). Caso 1942 first attempts a synthesis of the known corpus of art objects, followed by Covarrubias 1946 and Covarrubias 1957. Milbrath 1979 is unusual in its exclusive focus on formal traits. A key work for Olmec style as a discrete object of study is Coe 1965, which synthesizes information from archaeology and art history in what is still an important statement. De la Fuente 1994, de la Fuente 1996, and de la Fuente 2008 explore basic themes and diagnostic characteristics. Pye 2012 follows on these publications with a succinct update of basic themes and characteristics. Clewlow 1967 is a detailed look at one of the most important and striking formats for Olmec art. Grove 2010 is a concise introduction to art outside the heartland.
Caso, Alfonso. “Definición y extensión del complejo ‘Olmeca.’” In Mayas y Olmecas: Segunda reunión de Mesa Redonda sobre Promblemas Antropológicos de México y Centro América. 43–46. Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico: Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología, 1942.
Fundamental early definition of Olmec style.
Clewlow, C. William, ed. Colossal Heads of the Olmec Culture. Contributions, No. 4. Berkeley: University of California, Archaeological Research Facility, 1967.
Detailed study of the twelve Colossal Heads then known.
Coe, Michael D. “The Olmec Style and Its Distributions.” In Handbook of Middle American Indians. Edited by Gordon R. Willey, 739–775. Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica 3. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965.
A succinct historiography of the study of Olmec art to 1960 combined with an important early summary statement on the general nature of Olmec style and its place in Mesoamerican prehistory.
Covarrubias, Miguel. Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec. New York: Knopf, 1946.
Author’s first attempt at a synthetic statement on Olmec art. Focuses on what he views as a “were-jaguar” as the chief deity in the Olmec pantheon.
Covarrubias, Miguel. Indian Art of Mexico and Central America. New York: Knopf, 1957.
Opulently illustrated section on Olmec art with a hypothesis on the meaning of the ubiquitous supernatural as a “were-jaguar” rain deity. His tendency to see a cultural evolution out of Olmec civilization to later Mesoamerican peoples is the genesis of the “mother culture” hypothesis.
de la Fuente, Beatríz. Escultura monumental Olmeca: Catálogo. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma de México, 1973.
Exhaustive catalogue of Olmec sculpture known to that time.
de la Fuente, Beatríz. “Arte monumental Olmeca.” In Los Olmecas en Mesoamérica. Edited by John E. Clark and Rafael Doniz, 203–221. Mexico City: Citibank, 1994.
Synthesizes over twenty years of work on the characteristics of Olmec style.
de la Fuente, Beatríz. “Homocentrism in Olmec Monumental Art.” In Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. Edited by Elizabeth P. Benson and Beatriz de la Fuente, 41–51. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1996.
Defines several themes in Olmec monumental sculpture: Supernaturals, Single Human Figures, Twins, and Colossal Heads.
de la Fuente, Beatríz. “Puede un estilo definir una cultura?” In Olmeca: Balance y perspectivas: Memoria de la Primera Mesa Redonda. Edited by María Teresa Uriarte and Rebecca B. González Lauck, 25–38. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2008.
Treats the relationship of Olmec art style and Olmec culture.
Grove, David C. “Olmec-Style Art outside Olman.” In Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico. Edited by Kathleen Berrin and Virginia Fields, 68–75. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
Useful brief essay on the appearance of Olmec style outside the heartland of southern Veracruz and Tabasco.
Milbrath, Susan. A Study of Olmec Sculptural Chronology. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 23. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library & Collection, 1979.
Attempts a seriation of the monumental art through largely formal criteria.
Pye, Mary E. “Themes in the Art of the Preclassic Period.” In The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology. Edited by Deborah L. Nichols and Christopher A. Pool, 795–806. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Broad overview of Formative-period art that focuses on the Olmec and synthesizes many of the important themes in recent scholarship.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- Adornment, Dress, and African Arts of the Body
- Ancient Pueblo (Anasazi) Art
- Angkor and Environs
- Art and Architecture in the Medieval Kingdom of Hungary
- Art and Propaganda
- Art of Medieval Iberia
- Art of the Crusader Period in the Levant
- Art of the Dogon
- Art of the Mamluks
- Art of the Plains Peoples
- Arts of Senegambia
- Arts of the Pacific Islands
- Assyrian Art and Architecture
- Aztec Empire, Art of the
- Babylonian Art and Architecture
- Bamana Arts and Mande Traditions
- Barbizon Painting
- Bernini, Gian Lorenzo
- Bohemia and Moravia, Renaissance and Rudolphine Art of
- Borromini, Francesco
- Brazilian Art and Architecture, Post-independence
- Burkina Art and Performance
- Byzantine Art and Architecture
- Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da
- Carracci, Annibale
- Chaco Canyon and Other Early Art in the North American Sou...
- Chicana/o Art
- Chimú Art and Architecture
- Conceptual Art and Conceptualism
- Contemporary Art
- Courbet, Gustave
- Czech Modern and Contemporary Art
- Daumier, Honoré
- David, Jacques-Louis
- Delacroix, Eugène
- Design, Garden and Landscape
- Destruction in Art
- Dürer, Albrecht
- Early Christian Art
- Early Medieval Architecture in Western Europe
- Eighteenth-Century Europe
- Ethiopia, Art History of
- European Art, Historiography of
- European Medieval Art, Otherness in
- Eyck, Jan van
- Festivals in West Africa
- French Impressionism
- Gender and Art in the Middle Ages
- Gender and Art in the Renaissance
- Giotto di Bondone
- Gothic Architecture
- Goya y Lucientes, Francisco José
- Greek Art and Architecture
- Greenberg, Clement
- Géricault, Théodore
- Iconography in the Western World
- Installation Art
- Islamic Art and Architecture in North Africa and the Iberi...
- Japanese Architecture
- Jewish Art, Ancient
- Jewish Art, Medieval to Early Modern
- Jewish Art, Modern and Contemporary
- Jones, Inigo
- Kahlo, Frida
- Lastman, Pieter
- Leonardo da Vinci
- Markets and Auctions, Art
- Marxism and Art
- Maya Art
- Medieval Art and Liturgy (recent approaches)
- Medieval Textiles
- Merovingian Period Art
- Moche Art
- Modern Sculpture
- Monet, Claude
- Māori Art and Architecture
- Museums in Australia
- Museums of Art in the West
- Nasca Art
- Native North American Art, Pre-Contact
- New Media Art
- New Spain, Art and Architecture
- Olmec Art
- Pacific Art, Contemporary
- Palladio, Andrea
- Parthenon, The
- Performance Art
- Perspective from the Renaissance to Post-Modernism, Histor...
- Philip II and El Escorial
- Photography, History of
- Pollock, Jackson
- Postmodern Architecture
- Pre-Hispanic Art of Columbia
- Psychoanalysis, Art and
- Qing Dynasty Painting
- Rembrandt van Rijn
- Renaissance and Renascences
- Rivera, Diego
- Rodin, Auguste
- Roman Art
- Science and Conteporary Art
- Sculpture: Method, Practice, Theory
- South Asia and Allied Textile Traditions, Wall Painting of
- South Asia, Modern and Contemporary Art of
- South Asia, Photography in
- South Asian Architecture and Sculpture, 13th to 18th Centu...
- South Asian Art, Historiography of
- The Art of Medieval Sicily and Southern Italy through the ...
- Theory in Europe to 1800, Art
- Timurid Art and Architecture
- Turner, Joseph Mallord William
- van Gogh, Vincent
- Viking Art
- Warburg, Aby
- Warhol, Andy
- Wari (Huari) Art and Architecture
- Wittelsbach Patronage from the late Middle Ages to the Thi...
- Women, Art, and Art History: Gender and Feminist Analyses
- Yuan Dynasty Art