This remarkable casta painting by the celebrated painter Miguel Cabrera represents a major and thrilling discovery in the field of Spanish colonial art. Cabrera was the most acclaimed New Spanish (Mexican) painter of the eighteenth century. In 1763 he painted his famous (and only) set of casta paintings, a uniquely Mexican pictorial genre documenting the process of racial mixing among the colony’s inhabitants—Amerindians, Spaniards, and Africans.
The set originally comprised sixteen separate canvases, long dispersed: eight paintings are in the Museo de América, Madrid; five in the Museo de Historia, Monterrey (Mexico); and one is in the Multi-Cultural Music and Art Foundation of Northridge, California. LACMA’s picture had been one of two works whose whereabouts had remained unknown. It portrays the albino offspring of a Spanish father and a morisca mother (the progeny of a Spaniard and mulatto woman).
The tenderness of the scene, with the morisca woman gently handing over her child to the Spanish man is striking, as is the attention lavished on the figures’ clothing, a combination of New Spanish, European, and Asian garments. The morisca woman is depicted wearing a lavish calico skirt with floral motifs and an elegant Mexican rebozo (shawl) over a European-style blouse with elaborate lace cuffs. A tassel dangles over her richly-patterned skirt, creating a striking trompe-l’oeil effect. Both the woman and the child wear sumptuous chokers and earrings made of precious stones. The Spanish man is depicted wearing a sleeveless leather coat with attached red sleeves, of the type worn by the special group of soldiers known as dragones de cuera after their protective leather coat. He is shown next to a silver-inlay Spanish gun known as a trabuco (typical of those made in the town of Ripoll, Catalonia) with a knife secreted in his trousers. A broad leather hat rests on his knees. The dragones de cuera were charged with colonizing rebellious Indians in the Sierra Gorda and northern frontiers of the viceroyalty. Aside from the Spaniard’s markers of class and occupation, he is shown smoking (note the second cigarette behind his ear), with a package of cigarettes near at hand. (Tobacco, a staple of the New World, yielded great revenue to the Spanish crown.)
The painting was acquired in Spain in the 1920s and has since remained in California. Cabrera’s painting is a masterpiece of the Spanish colonial era. Extraordinary for its pictorial conception and rich in content, it also stands as a major testament to the craze for collecting Spanish and Spanish colonial art in the United Stated in the early twentieth century.
- Ilona Katzew, Curator and Department Head, Latin American Art