About This Artwork

Moche
North coast, Peru

Portrait Vessel of a Ruler, 100 B.C./A.D. 500

Ceramic and pigment
35.6 x 24.1 cm (14 x 9 1/2 in.)

Kate S. Buckingham Endowment, 1955.2338

Among the most distinctive art objects of the ancient Peruvians were ceramic vessels produced by the artists of the Moche culture, which flourished on the north coast between about 100 B.C. and A.D.500. Remarkable for their sculptural naturalism, these stirrup-spout bottles were molded without the aid of a potter’s wheel and painted in earth tones. Moche potters represented everything about their world, from domestic scenes to architecture, ritual events and royal personages, and animals and plants. This portrait vessel portrays individual characteristics—the furrowed brow and full, slightly protruding upper lip—as well as general features recognizable among Peruvian Indians today. With his commanding expression and proud bearing, the depicted ruler conveys an indelible sense of the power of Moche leaders. His elite status is further indicated by his fine headdress, decorated with the geometric motifs of Moche textiles, and by his elongated ear ornaments and the traces of facial paint on his forehead and cheeks. Vessels such as this were likely placed in burials as funerary offerings, but before they accompanied an individual to the grave, they may also have been sent as emblems of royal authority from a center of power to neighboring districts along with gifts of textiles and other ceremonial items.

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2013, p. 18.


Before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, great Indian civilizations thrived in Central and South America, with the richest and most powerful centered in the modern nations of Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru. Between the second century B.C. and the seventh century A.D., the Moche culture of Peru produced a naturalistic ceramic art that included portraits of great individuality and expressive power. This portrait vessel depicts a forceful ruler. Such vessels were placed in graves along with others that portray aspects of the Moche universe. In this respect, they correspond to the tomb paintings found in other civilizations.

— Entry, Art Institute of Chicago Pocketguide, 2009, p. 3.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Art Institute of Chicago, Arts of the Ancient Peru: The Eduard Gaffron Collection, 1955, no cat.

New York, The American Museum of Natural History, Art and Life in Old Peru: An Exhibition, from Sept. 1961, no cat.; exhibition overview published in journal Curator: The Museum Journal (1962), fig. 46 (ill.).

San Antonio Museum of Art, Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits, Feb. 4-Apr. 30, 2006; traveled to El Museo del Barrio, N.Y., Dec. 3, 2004–Mar. 20, 2005, Diego Museum of Art, Apr. 16–July 12, 2005; Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach, Fla., July 23–Oct. 2, 2005, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Wash. D.C, Oct. 21, 2005–Jan. 8, 2006, cat. pg. 66.

Publication History

Walter Lehmann and Dr. Heinrich Doering, Kunstgeschichte des Alten Peru (Verlag Ernst Wasmuth A.G., 1924), pg. 81 (ill.).

Heinrich U. Doering, Old Peruvian Art (E. Weyhe, 1936), pg. 14 (ill.).

Heinrich U. Doering, "Portrats der Vorzeit," Atlantis (October 1936), pp. 598-607 (ill.).

Heinrich Ubbelohde-Doering, The Art of Ancient Peru (Praeger, 1952), pp. 222-223 (ill.).

Heinrich Ubbelohde-Doering, The Art of Ancient Peru, 2nd ed. (Praeger, 1954), pp. 222-223 (ill.).

Junius B. Bird, “Art and Life in Old Peru: An Exhibition,” Curator: The Museum Journal vol. 2 (1962), pp. 196-197, fig. 46 (ill.).

Allen Wardwell, Primitive Art in the Collections of the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago, 1965), no. 17 (ill.).

Walter Lehmann and Heinrich Doering, The Art of Old Peru, reissued (Hacker Art Books, 1975), pg. 81 (ill.).

Richard Townsend, “Deciphering the Nazca World: Ceramic Images from Ancient Peru,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 11, 2 (Spring 1985), pp. 117–139 (ill.).

James N. Wood, Treasures from The Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago, 2000), pg. 31 (ill.).

Dorothy Chaplik, Latin American Arts and Cultures (Davis Publications, 2000) (ill.).

Pam Crabtree and Douglas Campana, Archaeology and Prehistory (McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2001) (ill.).

Brian Fagan, In the Beginning: An Introduction to Archeology, 10th ed. (Pearson Education, 2001).

John P. McKay, A History of World Societies (Houghton Mifflin, 2003).

Art Institute of Chicago, The Essential Guide, revised ed. (Art Institute of Chicago, 2003), p. 12 (ill.).

Elizabeth P. Benson, et al., Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits, exh. cat. (San Antonio Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2004), pg. 66 (ill.).

Pam Crabtree and Douglas Campana, Exploring Prehistory: How Archaeology Reveals Our Past, 2nd ed. (McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2005), (ill.).

Brian Fagan, In the Beginning: An Introduction to Archaeology, 11th ed. (Pearson Education, 2005) (ill.).

Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art, 7th ed. (Laurence King Publishing, 2005) (ill.).

John P McKay, A History of World Societies, 7th ed. (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005) (ill.).

Thomas Buser, Experiencing Art Around Us, 2nd ed. (Wadsworth, 2006) (ill.).

Art Institute of Chicago, Pocket Guide (Art Institute of Chicago, 2009), pg. 3 (ill.).

Art Institute of Chicago, The Essential Guide, 3rd. ed. (Art Institute of Chicago, 2009), pg. 18 (ill.).

Art Institute of Chicago, The Essential Guide, 4th ed. (Art Institute of Chicago, 2013), pg. 18 (ill.).

Ownership History

Eduard Gaffron (1861–1931), Lima, Peru, from 1892 to 1912, then Berlin, from [History of the Department report (Joanne Behrens, 1985) and correspondence in curatorial file]; by descent to his children Mercedes Gaffron, Berlin then Durham S.C. and Hans Gaffron (1902–1979), Berlin then Chicago [correspondence and documentation of the Gaffron Collection in curatorial file]; sold to the Art Institute, 1955.




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