The Landscapes of Casta Paintings: Depictions of Social Anxieties in XVIII Century New Spanish Art

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  1. 1. Natalia Caldas

    The CulturePlex Laboratory - Western University (University of Western Ontario)

  2. 2. Elika Ortega

    The CulturePlex Laboratory - Western University (University of Western Ontario)

  3. 3. David Michael Brown

    The CulturePlex Laboratory - Western University (University of Western Ontario)

  4. 4. Juan Luis Suárez

    The CulturePlex Laboratory - Western University (University of Western Ontario)

  5. 5. Antonio Jiménez-Mavillard

    The CulturePlex Laboratory - Western University (University of Western Ontario)

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1. Introduction
Casta painting was one of the most popular non-religious artistic genres in New Spain (present day Mexico) during the XVIII century. They come in series of up to sixteen scenes, each one showing an interracial couple and their offspring usually carrying out daily activities in everyday settings. In these paintings, artists depicted the three main ethnic groups making up Mexico’s colonial population: Españoles, Indios, and Negros, and the process of mestizaje. Produced mostly in Mexico City and Puebla, Casta paintings reached a peak in production between 1770 and 1780, disappearing at the beginning of the 19th century as the War of Independence began and a generalized rejection of colonial structures took hold. In New Spanish society casta referred to race, both in biological and social terms 1. This notion was the basis of a caste system that pervaded New Spanish life at the time; a form of colonial control informing the kind of jobs people could do, where they could live, the civil liberties they had, and whether they paid taxes. According to Edward Long, the caste system had three general purposes: “first, to guarantee that each race occupy a social niche assigned by nature; second, to offer the possibility of improving one’s blood through the right pattern of mixing; third, to inhibit the mixture of Indians and Blacks, which was deemed the more dangerous to the Spanish social order” 2. Blood mending–a process that was believed to make the offspring of interracial couples return to a pure European bloodline–was in the Spanish elite’s eyes a way to assert their prominence. A control mechanism serving colonial concerns, blood mending was commonly staged in Casta paintings and, along with hierarchical and structured serialization, appears to suggest an ordered and stable social system 3.

Critics have suggested that Casta paintings served as souvenirs–postcards–of the new world and, thus, showed a functioning and harmonious society 4. As a matter of fact, Magali Carrera has stated that “as visualizations of race, Casta paintings stabilize the ambiguity and complexity of physical race by locating the meanings of race in the confluence, interactions, and mediations between and among physical, social, and economic spaces” 5. Because of the composition and titles of Casta paintings, much literature has focused on their function as documents cataloguing the existence of the main races and the many resulting combinations –upwards of fifty according to Nicolás León 6. We take the painting’s titles as metadata rooted in the hegemonic perception of the groups depicted and explore their inconsistencies; for example, how in thecasta system ‘casta’ simultaneously refers to both a specific mix like ‘Barcino’ or ‘Coyote’ and to the whole set of possible mestizaje instances. For Margarita de Orellana, the proliferation of terms and the representation of many castas showed the discontinuity of the mestizaje phenomenon. Furthermore, by dividing and fragmenting it, the complexity of mestizaje was over simplified 7. The fact that many of Casta paintings were commissioned by and for Spanish patrons, and even meant to be sent to Europe 8, explains the intent to reduce the complexity of mestizaje and to show the stability of life in the Americas. Moreover, the notion of blood mending in the caste system, observable in the paintings, sought to put an end to “the widely held notion in Europe that everybody in the Americas was hopelessly mixed” 9. We argue that by artificially emphasizing the division of castas, these paintings sought to reassure the Spanish who feared their demise in New Spanish society, but ultimately failed to do so.

2. Overview and Methodology
In this study we challenge the hierarchical catalogue view embedded in Casta paintings. Instead of looking at castas in their rigid classifications, we have examined them as a group making up the larger and more complex figure of the mestizo. In that sense, we take casta as a group category referring to all mestizos resulting out of Español, Indio, and Negro. We base this assertion following Octavio Paz for whom, “among all the groups making up New Spain’s populations, mestizos were the only ones embodying that society, its true children… Furthermore, they were those who made it not only new, but another” (our translation) 10. In addition, instead of looking at particular series we have built a database with descriptions of over two hundred paintings. Painting description included extracting a total of 618 characters and marking them by casta (as assigned to them in the paintings’ title), gender, as “parent” or “child”, and the activity they are doing. Casta painting critics have often pointed out that far from being a harmonious reflection of the caste system, they highlight the tensions and complexities underlying it. We build upon this through an extensive data approach and analysis. We believe this global approach has the capacity to show how, far from pacifying Spanish fears and concerns, Casta paintings confirm them and suggest prevalent mestizaje and the loss of Spanish prominence.

3. Results
Data analysis has shown that the majority of the characters depicted in Casta paintings are either Españoles or Indios, followed by Mulatos and Mestizos (Fig. 1). Most interesting is a composite view of casta and gender in which Español males are the most represented group throughout and are present in almost half of the paintings we have described. The second largest group is Indio females, present in over seventy paintings (Fig. 2). The recurrence of Español male and Indio females signals the basis of racial mixing resulting in the particular figure of the Mestizo, which can be extrapolated as the general view of casta as any of the mixes.

Fig. 1: Overall casta frequency.

Fig. 2: Casta frequency by gender.

A look at the offspring sheds much light into the issues of blood mending and Spanish prominence. When we look at the offspring as separate castas, it is indeed the Español children who are most recurrent. The division of castas, thus, fulfills the objective of showing Spanish prominence among the interracial diversity. Furthermore, as there are no couples composed of both Español father and mother, the presence of Español offspring highlights the possibility of blood mending through the right combinations (Fig. 3). In contrast, when we look at offspring after casta grouping, the outlook is quite different. In Fig. 4, we show the proportion of two non-mixed offspring (Español and Indio as there are no Negro offspring in the corpus) and the two biggest casta groups (Mestizo and Mulato). This grouping highlights how, even though the Españoles are the larger minority, their prominence quickly dwindles in comparison to casta children. Fig. 5 reinforces the sweeping presence of mixed-race offspring in comparison to the Español. Our data on the offspring depicted suggest not only that blood mending and a return to whiteness are rather marginal, it also highlights that further mixing is the standard depicted in Casta paintings.

Fig. 3: Overall offspring casta frequency.

Fig. 4: Main castas and casta grouping.

Fig. 5: Español, Indio, Negro and Castas outloook.

Additionally, we have identified forty activities being depicted in Casta paintings, and explored the three most recurrent ones in detail: carrying and holding children (Fig. 6), portrait posing (Fig. 7), and working (Figs. 8 and 9). We have looked at these activities with regards to casta frequency. In terms of carrying and holding a child, females are seen to be the ones who carry out this activity the most; however, it is actually Indio women who have the highest frequency. For the males, it is seen that Español take charge and hold children over Español women, and over every other male. Español males are most frequently depicted as portrait posing, which sets them apart from the other characters in the corpus for their lack of association with different types of labour. In contrast, when we look at work activities, such as sewing, selling, shoe mending, and making pulque, it is Indios and Negros who have the highest frequency of working depictions. In ratio terms, almost 40% of Indios and almost 50% of Negros are shown carrying out a work activity. These results indicate that the Español characters were represented as prosperous figures, though largely passive, especially when compared to Indios, Negros, Mestizos, and Mulatos who are shown being in charge of most of the basic economic activities.

Fig. 6: Holding and carrying children by casta and gender frequency.

Fig. 7: Posing by casta frequency.

Fig. 8: Working by casta frequency.

Fig. 9: Percentage by casta of working individuals.

4. Conclusions
By taking a general castaapproach, this study argues that the notions of blood mending and Spanish prominence that informed and even produced Casta painting are fragile. These two principles of the caste system in place in New Spain at the time are consistent only as long as castas are seen individually. Conversely, when viewed as a group, castas not only outnumber the Español, Indio and Negro characters, they also signal that miscegenation was the standard. Furthermore, the contrast between the depiction of the Españoles’ apparent prominence through non-laborious activities and the frequency of representations of Indio, Negro, Mulato, and Mestizo characters working, suggests an economic tension revealing a loss of Spanish relevance in the changing social landscape. Finally, Casta paintings not only fail at remedying the Spanish elite’s anxieties, but, rather, stage the inevitability of miscegenation and even anticipate the demise of Spanish colonial rule.

1. Carrera, Magali. Locating Race in Late Colonial Mexico. Art Journal 57.3 (1998). Web. p. 38.

2. Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-century Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. Print. p. 49.

3. Guzauskyte, Evelina. Fragmented Borders, Fallen Men, Bestial Women: Violence in the Casta Paintings of Eighteenth-century New Spain. Bulletin of Spanish Studies 86.2 (2009). Print. p. 176.

4. García Sáiz, María Concepción. Las castas mexicanas: Un género de pictórico americano. Milan: Olivetti, 1989. Print. p. 42.

5. Carrera, Magali. Locating Race in Late Colonial Mexico. Art Journal 57.3 (1998). Web. p. 45.

6. Léon, Nicolás.Las castas. Artes de Mexico 8 (1998). Print. p. 79.

7. De Orellana, Margarita.La Fiebre De La Imagen En La Pintura De Castas. Artes de Mexico 8 (1998). Print. p.58.

8. Katzew, Ilona.Casta Painting: Identity and Social Stratification in Colonial Mexico. New world orders: cata painting and colonial Latin America. University of Texas Press (1996). Print. p.13.

9. Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-century Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. Print. p.49.

10. Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, o, Las trampas de la fe. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1982. Print. p.42.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO