MEXICAN SCHOOL, EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
Three Casta Paintings
Each oil on canvas,
(no. 1) 21 ½ x 15 ½ in.; (no. 2) 19 ¼ x 15 ½ in.; (no. 3) 20 1/8 x 15 7/8 in.
Minot Family, Boston Freeman Winslow Hill, Commonwealth Avenue, Boston (by the 1950s); thence by descent to:
Private Collection, Massachusetts, until 2014; their estate sale, Gabriel’s Auctioneers, Norwood, Mass. June 9, 2014
These three unpublished casta paintings have recently emerged from an old Massachusetts collection. They presumably formed part of a larger set of sixteen canvases, the usual number of the genre, which depicts and describes the multi-racial population of Colonial Mexico with a combination of naïve ethnography, fantasy, and pride. The function, history, and variations of casta painting have been the subject of extensive scholarly interest in recent years, as discussed in the studies listed in the selected bibliography below. While the racial mixes depicted in casta paintings tend to follow established patterns, there is no orthodox set of combinations. The present works are especially interesting since they present some unusual variations from the standards found in the complete or near-complete sets.
Number 1 in our listing (and the order is arbitrary) depicts a mixed-race mother standing next to a seated bewigged white father, who cheerfully holds his daughter standing on his lap. The inscription identifies the father as a Spaniard, the mother as a Torna-atrás, literally a “return-backwards” or a “throw-back.” The staid European dress of the father, who wears an embroidered blue dress frock-coat over a waistcoat, is contrasted with the manifestly Mexican dress of the mother, who wears a shawl over her blouse. The mother sports a pearl choker and earrings, with an elaborate lace mantilla on her head. Jewelry adorns the little child as well; she wears earrings and coral amulet tied about her neck. The child is described as a Tente-nel-Aire, literally “Hold-yourself-suspended-in-mid-air,” but perhaps signifying an unpredictable outcome. We’ve given the title as A Spanish Husband and a Throw-back Wife makes an “Up-in-the-Air.”
The second painting features a dark-skinned couple, the husband described as a Barsino, the wife as a Loba. A Barsino, more usually rendered as Barcino, is a person of rusty or reddish complexion, part Indian and part mulatto, while a Loba describes a mixed-race female of Indian and African blood. Here the man carries a snare drum on his back and drumsticks in his left hand, while in his right he holds a stem with what appear to be two large cacao fruits. His wife carries their child in a kind of papoose. We give the title as A Rusty Husband and a She-Wolf Wife makes a Quadroon.
The third painting, depicts an Albino man reading on a patio outside his house, with the door ajar --an Albino being white of complexion, but African of origin. Standing next to him is his pale Spanish wife, in rich costume with a mantilla about her shoulders, and between them the Torna-atrás child, dressed in formal Spanish attire but with pronounced dark skin: An Albino Husband and a Spanish Wife makes a Throw-back. The wife wears a pearl necklace, earrings, a red headdress and sports a chiqueador, a false beauty mark on her left brow, a fashion accessory that by its location indicates her commitment to her husband.
In all of these paintings a fanciful rococo framework graces the perimeter of the scene, while in the backgrounds of each birds and trees can be seen. The first painting is inscribed piña for pineapple, two generic examples of which hang from branches in a way they never do in nature. The second painting is inscribed capulin for the capulin or tropic cherry, a bunch of which can be seen dangling above the wife’s head. The third painting is inscribed sirguela, indicating the fruit more commonly called siriguela, sineguella, or jocote, again shown among the leaves of the tree. All three of these fruits (as well as the cacao) are native to Mexico and are shown here, as is common with casta paintings, to demonstrate the variety and novelty of the bounty of the New World. However, the artist has placed these unusual fruits on almost generic trees that have little to do with botanical reality.
These paintings can be dated on stylistic grounds to the latter half of the eighteenth century; strong analogies exist with paintings of this time from other casta series, both in terms of the figural style, composition, and the unusual rococo moldings that frame each composition. While no other pictures from the same series are at present known, the style of the protaganists, orthography of the inscription, and the design of the cartouche in our paintings are particularly close to an unusual casta painting in the Banamex collection, depicting a Spanish male, albino woman, and Torna atrás child on a terrace overlooking the Alameda of Mexico City. This anonymous work, datable 1770-80, is conceivably by the same hand as the present three pictures.
Selected Bibliography on Casta paintings
Teresa Castello Yturbide, “Los cuadros de mestizaje y sus pintores,” in Antonio Pompa y Pompa, et. al., De la istoria: homenaje a Jorge Gurría Lacroix (Mexico City 1980), pp. 30-45.
Efraín Castro Morales, “Los cuadros de castas de la Nueva España,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Latinamericas, 20 (1983), pp. 671-688.
Maria Concepcion Garcia Saiz, Las castas mexicanas: un género pictorico americano (Mexico City 1989)
Elena Isabel Estrada de Gerlero, “Las pinturas de castas, imágenes de una sociedad variopinta,” in Mexico en el Mundo de las Colecciones de Arte; Nueva España, (Mexico City 1994) II pp. 86-88.
Ilona Katzew, ed., New World Orders: Casta Painting and Colonial Latin America, exh cat. New York 1996.
Magali M. Carera, Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings. Austin 2003
Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting; Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (New Haven-London 2004)