Casta Paintings: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico by Ilona Katzew; Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings by Magali M. Carrera
The Art Bulletin
Volume 88, Number 1 (March, 2006)
Thomas B.F. Cummins, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Art
Ilona Katzew, Casta Paintings: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 256 pp.; 127 color ills., 143 b/w.
Magali M. Carrera, Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 188 pp.; 12 color ills., 60 b/w.
In eighteenth-century New Spain (Mexico), a genre of painting appeared, the likes of which had never been seen before. Called casta paintings in English, this new genre took as its subject the colonial issue of race (raza), racial intermarriage, and their offspring. Almost always painted in a series of approximately sixteen canvases, they depict a mother, father, and child, each of whom represents a different category within the sistema de castas, or racial lineages. For example, the first painting in the series normally represents a Spaniard, an Indian, and their child, a mestizo. These remarkable paintings have become increasingly the subject of studies and exhibitions in the last twenty years. (1) These recent books by Ilona Katzew and Magali M. Carrera add greatly to our knowledge about this unique and fascinating genre, and they demonstrate at the same time the growth of the field of Latin American colonial art history in the United States. More important, their work demonstrates that scholars in the United States are no longer interested only in the art and architecture of the sixteenth century, an area first plowed by George Kubler (to use his metaphor), Harold We they, and George MacAndrew in the United States and by a much larger contingent of scholars from Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, and Spain. New and careful studies in the United States by such scholars as Jaime Lara, Jeanette Peterson, Elizabeth Boone, and Barbara Mundy concerning the sixteenth century have been published. New and important work also is being published in Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico, and a list would be too long to mention the outstanding research that has enlivened the sixteenth-century colonial art studies in the past twenty years. It is, in fact, now possible to teach an early Spanish colonial art history course using a wide range of material published in English. But now, as this area matures, some art historians throughout the Americas are looking to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as fertile fields of inquiry, and not only in areas of religious art–although the production of religious art certainly predominates in all colonial periods–but also in the study of secular works such as maps, textiles, silver-work, portraits, and casta paintings.
The two books by Carrera and Katzew are additions to this growing area. While their almost simultaneous publication on the same eighteenth-century genre may seem imbalanced in light of how much other work remains to be done in the field of eighteenth-century Mexican art and architecture, their efforts might be best understood as a consequence of the tremendous attraction exerted by casta paintings. Beyond their aspect as visually arresting paintings, these works, unlike any other genre of painting in Western art, deal directly and concretely with the visualization of racial categories within the colonial context of a broad racial discourse. As such, casta paintings resonate in various ways with modern sensibilities about race; it should be no surprise that the recent exhibition of casta paintings curated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by Ilona Katzew drew a very large, enthusiastic, and diverse public. In fact, any American viewer of today–and by American I mean anyone in the Americas–who looks at these paintings must come face-to-face with the roots of racialized America. Casta paintings, as both Katzew and Carrera point out, constitute a pivotal part of the formation of racial categories and how they are registered in Mexico. The paintings visually order the interracial marriages of New Spain, beginning with a marriage between a Spaniard (Espanol) and an Indian (Indios); a Spaniard and a Negro (Negros); a Negro and an Indian. These marriages are compounded in racial diversity by the marriages of their children (mestizos, mulattoes, and so on). The progression has infinite possibilities in terms of the degree of mixture. However, casta paintings are organized in a predetermined sequence, often numbered from one to sixteen, so that the order cannot be altered. It therefore composes a closed series in which is found a bewildering and ultimately fictitious set of categories for the descending categories of racial mixing. For example, from the marriage between an Espanol (Spaniard) and torna atras (literally, return backward, who is the offspring of the marriage of a Spaniard and albino) is born a tenete en el aire (hold-yourself-in-midair). This immediately poses the question: What racial category is an albino in the system of castas in Mexico? To arrive at the category of albino in the casta series there must first be a marriage between a Spaniard and a mulata, the child of whom is called a morisco. The morisco in turn must marry a Spaniard, whose child is termed an albino. Of course, in reality, not all moriscos and Spaniards have albino children and not all albino children are born to morisco and Spanish parents. The system of castas is not, however, about such logic. Casta paintings as a series present a clear causal progression that includes the albino as a predicable and known casta. Neither author ever thoroughly addresses this category in terms of the casta series, although Katzew offers an interesting discussion of the albino as described by two Spanish authors in relation to “whiteness and blackness” (pp. 47-48)…
Read the entire review of both books here.