Casta Painting

Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico

Ilona Katzew

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The pictorial genre known as casta painting is one of the most compelling forms of artistic expression from colonial Mexico. Created as sets of consecutive images, the works portray racial mixing among the main groups that inhabited the colony: Indians, Spaniards, and Africans. In this beautifully illustrated book, Ilona Katzew places casta paintings in their social and historical context, showing for the first time the ways in which the meanings of the paintings changed along with shifting colonial politics.
The book examines how casta painting developed art historically, why race became the subject of a pictorial genre that spanned an entire century, who commissioned and collected the works, and what meanings the works held for contemporary audiences. Drawing on a range of previously unpublished archival and visual material, Katzew sheds new light on racial dynamics of eighteenth-century Mexico and on the construction of identity and self-image in the colonial world.

Ilona Katzew is associate curator of Latin American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“In her copiously illustrated catalog . . . Katzew assembled the most extensive collection of work in this genre from archives, private collections, and other institutions.”—Miguel Juarez, Art Documentation

"Casta translates as caste, and as distinguished art historian Katzew explains in her groundbreaking study, Mexican casta paintings document 'the complex process of race mixing among the three main groups that inhabited the Spanish colony, Indian, Spanish, and African.' Katzew sets the scene by describing cosmopolitan eighteenth-century Mexico City, then explicates the social and political forces that gave rise to these unsettling yet fascinating works in which painters, inspired by the Enlightenment's obsession with classification, created human equations by meticulously, yet tenderly, portraying mixed-race couples and their offspring and then identifying them with titles such as From Spaniard and Indian a Mestiza Is Born. Casta paintings are of interest not only because they record a racial hierarchy but also because they provide a catalog of often overlooked cultural traditions, thus illustrating many subtle yet crucial aspects of Mexican history."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Richly illustrated . . . an absorbing study. . . . [Katzew's] discussion draws her readers into a number of fascinating enquiries."—British Bulletin of Publications

“Casta paintings, a phenomenon of 18th-century Mexico, portraying mixed racial families and their offspring, have received increasing attention over the past 15 years for what they reveal about control and structure in that colonial society. Katzew’s superbly illustrated book is now the indispensable reference on the subject. . . . This is an important study for various disciplines concerned with colonial Latin America. . . . Highly recommended.”—Choice

"Casta paintings tell much about colonial Mexico; the idee fixe for the ruling classes was social stratification of Indians, Spaniards and Africans. Curator Katzew, who compiled this catalogue in conjunction with an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, explores the implications of the once popular genre devoted to depicting mixed-race couples and their progeny. For all the meticulously rendered domestic scenes, it is the inscriptions, such as From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto, that declare the central purpose of these paintings: 'narrating the process of miscegenation.' Typically serialized in 16 scenes, the portraits are organized by the skin tones of the couples-from lightest to darkest. Katzew's scholarship reveals a colonizing elite obsessed with race, a creole class eager to document its wealth, European collectors titillated by the 'exotic' and the Spanish empire's attempt to control an increasingly fluid society through rigid hierarchy. Though the author offers little formal analysis in terms of artistic technique or composition, her examination of dress and hairstyles, among other motifs, unveils loaded meanings in the smallest details. More sociology than art history, Katzew's volume presents a fascinating study of racial anxieties and begs questions of this unique art form's legacy."—Publishers Weekly

“A comprehensive analysis of 18th-Century Mexican paintings. . . . The first such study of its kind. . . . Beautifully and lavishly illustrated.”—Art Times

"Admirable and informative. . . . The book, which is handsomely produced as a coffee-table art book, includes numerous examples of casta paintings, many in full color. . . . However, this book is much more than a coffee-table publication. Based on original archival research and a thorough examination of secondary sources, Katzew analyzes and updates our understanding of the sistema de castas, its origin and evolution, the important thinkers and their ideas with regard to race, and she places the casta paintings, the collectors, and the artists who produced them within the context of late colonial society. In my opinion, this book will be the definitive text on the subject for years to come."—Gabriel Haslip-Viera, Hispanic American Historical Review

Selected for Honorable Mention for a 2003-2004 Book Award given by the Association for Latin American Art
ISBN: 9780300102413
Publication Date: April 10, 2004
252 pages, 9 x 11
100 b/w + 100 color illus.