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Female Figure with Bold, Geometric Face and Body Paint

A work made of terracotta and pigmented slip.
CC0 Public Domain Designation

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  • A work made of terracotta and pigmented slip.


200/100 B.C.


Guanajuato or Michoacán, Mexico

About this artwork

A rare work of art such as this female figurine, from a time and place far different from ours, may sometimes strike the eye in a way that brings to mind an almost familiar yet elusive sense of recognition as if an essential memory were already there, waiting to rise in the viewer’s imagination. Our approach to such objects can seldom rely on ancient written records. We must begin by looking at the works themselves: at their materials and modes of manufacture, and at shapes, colors, patterns, and symbols. Archaeological contexts can also offer vital information, and analogies may be drawn from the cultural records of later societies in which ancient customs and ways of perception have long persisted.

This sculptural effigy belongs to the sophisticated Chupícuaro artistic tradition, which was more concerned with symbolic abstraction than naturalistic anatomical proportion. The female figure stands in a formal frontal pose, the oversize head set with staring, lozenge-shaped eyes, the nose jutting forward above a receding chin, and the open mouth showing rows of teeth. Subtly concave in the middle, the trapezoidal torso abruptly swells in the bulbous hips, belly, and thighs. The face and body are covered by burnished, deep red slip, or liquid clay, which sets off a bold pattern of cream zigzag lines; more delicate designs were drawn across the cream-painted loins and thighs. There is an uncanny visual quality to the hieratic stance, stylized proportions, and brilliant designs, all of which reflect the ritual body paint that Chupícuaro women would have worn on high ceremonial occasions some two thousand years ago.

Located in Mexico’s central highlands, the principal archaeological site of Chupícuaro was on an island in the Lerma River that was submerged by the waters of a dam built in 1946 and 1947. In ancient times, trails along the riverbanks were traveled by lines of porters bearing colorful Chupícuaro pottery for trade with the growing metropolis of Teotihuacán, far to the east in the Valley of Mexico. Yet impressive Chupícuaro figures like this one were recovered from the now-inundated homeland burial grounds. It is likely that this and several known related figures commemorated a girl’s coming of age, embodying a perceived correspondence between the stages of human life and the earth’s annual cycle of birth, death, and renewal. As burial offerings, these effigies would have affirmed the matriarchal status of a high-ranking, mature, and productive member of society, recalling her initiation into womanhood and family life, and her active participation in seasonal rites devoted to securing the fertility of the soil, the abundance of crops, and the well being of the community from year to year.


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Arts of the Americas




Female Figure with Bold, Geometric Face and Body Paint


Mexico (Object made in)


200 BCE–100 BCE


Terracotta and pigmented slip


44.8 × 20 × 8.7 cm (17 5/8 × 7 7/8 × 3 7/16 in.)

Credit Line

Frederick W. Renshaw Acquisition Fund; purchased with funds provided by Cynthia and Terry E. Perucca, Jamee and Marshall Field, and Helen and Sam Zell; Edward Johnson, Grant J. Pick Purchase, and Henry Horner Straus Memorial funds; purchased with funds provided by Lynn and Allen Turner; African and Amerindian Curator’s Discretionary Fund

Reference Number


IIIF Manifest  The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) represents a set of open standards that enables rich access to digital media from libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural institutions around the world.

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Extended information about this artwork

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