A reading of a casta painting

(Note: This post, crossposted here, is part of a larger interest of mine in identifying the characteristics of visual and textual rhetorics of interracial mixing and seeing what larger conclusions we can draw from those characteristics.)

Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (Yale, 2004). Amazon link here. Image found here.

Posts both at my other blog and at this one on the genre of casta painting continue to draw a fair amount of traffic, so as a follow-up to those posts I thought I would post some brief comments on Katzew’s book and offer up not so much a reading of a painting as a kind of wading-into of the various social codes casta paintings participated in.

Here are some things I hadn’t know before reading this book that seem to me of significance: First of all, casta paintings are apparently exclusively a Spanish colonial–more precisely Mexican–genre (though Katzew notes the existence of one known casta painting set from Peru). This was surprising to me because the French Caribbean colonies likewise had worked out elaborate nomenclatures for various racial combinations–though theirs involved black-white combinations, and the New Spain system carried within it an implicit didactic element for its audience, about which more later. The other thing I didn’t know was the extent of these paintings’ popularity: Katzew notes that there are 100 known complete sets of these paintings (a set usually consists of 16 paintings; some depict up to 19 racial combinations) and any number of paintings belonging to now-incomplete sets. The other sign of their popularity is that, similar to but stricter than the guild system for painters in Dutch and Flemish culture, the Spanish crown regulated the licensing of artist workshops and who could paint what subjects in the colonies. Specifically, the Crown determined through examination who could paint religious and royal subjects and how to paint them, but no such regulations governed casta paintings; Katzew politely suggests that this lack of regulation accounts for these paintings’ “wide range of quality” (9).

If you have more than passing (no pun, about which more later) interest in this subject, look for this book. Katzew’s book is exemplary art history, with the emphasis here on the “history” part. But though there is lots of history, it serves to provide much-needed context for what would otherwise be rather enigmatic paintings. But neither does it skimp on images: there are 265 of them, most of them in color, not counting large closeups of some of the paintings. Moreover, many of the paintings included here are held privately and published here for the first time, thus adding to the book’s value.

Reading Katzew’s book reassured me that for the most part I hadn’t just been talking through my hat in those earlier posts regarding these paintings’ ambiguities for their audiences. Because her book is a work of art history, as opposed to criticism, she does not in the end argue for a definitive way to think about them. Rather, by so firmly establishing their cultural and social and legal contexts, Katzew makes clear that a far safer way for us to think about these paintings is that how they were understood in the 18th century depended on a whole complex of issues. They are part American exotica for primarily Spanish consumption, part visual codification of class and racial codes (and, thus, reassurance for Spaniards that everything is under control) . . . and yet, something about the very necessity to create a casta system in the first place would lead to its eventual (partial) deconstruction in the form of the wars for independence in the first quarter of the 19th century. The title of Katzew’s conclusion pretty much sums it up: “A genre with many meanings.” It’s outside the scope of her book to do so, but I would push that conclusion harder: Given that these series of paintings are intended to be part dictionary of racial types, part social code, and part visual cabinet of curiosities, I tend to think that their audiences, if they thought about the correspondences between the paintings and the realities of New Spain, could not escape the uneasy feeling that a social order founded on racial difference would eventually become untenable–especially given that part of these paintings’ very point (and whether this point was intended or not is difficult to determine) is that those differences were becoming ever harder to discern in real life. These paintings end up implicitly depicting their own inadequacy to depict the very thing they’re intended to depict–another version of something I was trying to get at in this post with regard to American literature.

Imagine if the King of Ambiguity in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne, had instead been a painter in 18th-century colonial Mexico. I think you’d have a pretty good sense of the complexities casta paintings presented for their immediate audiences–and, for that matter, for us.

An example of what I mean is below the fold.

Attributed to Juan Rodríguez Juárez. “De mulatto y mestiza, produce mulatto es torna atrás” (Mulatto and Mestiza Produce a Mulatto Return-Backwards), c. 1715 (image found here).

This is a very typical casta painting: the parents and child shown in a relaxed setting and enjoying each other’s company. Based on their dress, they appear to be well off. One thing the viewer cannot see, though, is that this painting is not meant to stand alone. It is one of a series of 16 paintings, each of which depicts a father and mother of different racial designations and their resulting offspring. Earlier paintings in the series would show the racial combinations that would produce a mulatto/a and a mestizo/a (Spaniard-Negro and Spaniard-Indian, respectively); knowing this means we can place this painting approximately in the middle of the series–which also serves as an implicit social ranking for this couple as well.

The didactic portion of this painting, as with all casta paintings, is in the child’s racial designation. Katzew notes that while “pure” Spaniards occupied the undisputed pinnacle of the colonies’ social hierarchies, Spanish-Indian intermarriage was tolerated because indigenous peoples were likewise regarded as a “pure” race. Moreover, mestizos/as who themselves “married up,” ethnically speaking, would in three generations produce offspring regarded as “Spanish.” The offspring of Spanish-African intermarriage, however, had no such corresponding promises if they also married up: People of African descent were regarded as a degenerate people for biblical reasons; thus, no one with African blood in his/her family’s past, no matter how remote, could be regarded as white. The mestiza mother, had she married a Spaniard, would have produced a castizo/a, who then, had s/he married a Spaniard, would produce offspring considered by law to be Spaniards. Those combinations, by the way, would have been depicted in preceding paintings in the series. Instead, this mother has married a mulatto; their son’s designation as a “Return-Backwards” refers to the fact that for his offspring there is no hope of their whitening, whether or not they marry up in the hierarchy. The official message of this painting, then, could not be clearer–if, that is, one is interested in achieving the eventual racial redemption of one’s progeny. I should quickly add here that miscegenation in the abstract was officially regarded by Spaniards as a sign of moral degeneracy; casta paintings from the second half of the 18th century would seek to combat this attitude by depicting such things as lighter-skinned mothers breast-feeding their children (it was thought at the time that having infants nourished by wet-nurses (who tended to be Indians or blacks) contributed to that moral degeneracy) and depicting all but the very lowest of the racial castes as prosperous or engaged in honest labor. At this point in the history of the genre, I think one could make a case for an implicit politics present in these paintings: By the latter half of the 18th century, New Spain was demographically a criollo (Creole) society, and many of these paintings make an implicit case that the most prosperous of the Spanish colonies was not suffering as a result. On the contrary: almost all its subjects, no matter their caste, were contributing to that prosperity.

But even as this painting implicitly dramatizes what is officially seen to be (in this case) a mother’s unfortunate choice in a husband, Katzew’s book also is at pains to discuss markers of social class other than race in New Spain, one of which is on display in this painting: clothes. One’s ethnicity consigned one to a certain status in the colony, and certain jobs, especially those having to do with the administering of the colony’s affairs, were reserved for Spaniards. However, there were apparently no restrictions on business ownership; thus, some mulattoes and others of lower racial castes became quite wealthy and dressed the part. You can see where this is headed: At least some lighter-skinned members of lower castes who had the means would pass as wealthy castizos so as to secure status and plum positions either for themselves or for their children. Katzew makes note of the fact that the viceroys passed laws forbidding the ostentatious display of wealth via the wearing of expensive fabrics and placing limits on the number of pieces of jewelry one could wear in public. The official reason given had to do with the fact that such displays ran contrary to the more preferred public image of humility; surely, though, the codified rigidity of the casta system could not change the obvious fact that, as intermarriage over time blurred and further blurred obvious physical distinctions among whites, blacks and Indians, one could no longer be certain of others’ castes just by looking at them. The regulations placed on clothes, then, were intended to create more surety along these lines. This painting, though, and many other casta paintings’ subjects, make pretty clear what Katzew’s text confirms: that people ignored the regulations, which weren’t stringently enforced anyway.

A fair question arises: Did Rodríguez Juárez intend for his casta paintings to raise all this? The short answer is, Who knows? And it’s that response, which I’m not at all dismissive of, that Katzew is at pains to make clear in her book by staying away from definitive readings of these paintings’ ultimate intentions. Though casta paintings were a popular genre, they weren’t the sort of things that were painted “just because.” Often, they were commissioned by a patron as souvenirs of his time in New Spain or to be given as gifts to friends or associates. Moreover, over time a certain standardization arose within this genre: within these series certain scenes became associated with certain caste groupings as painters took their cues from their peers. So, all those factors–the market-driven nature of the genre; the patron’s purpose(s) in commissioning a set; the beginnings of standardization–also make it harder to know what, if anything, the artist might have wanted to say about his subject via his work. It’s nevertheless true, though, that these paintings participate in Spanish and colonial debates on race and class and serve to reveal the complexities and subtleties of that debate.


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