Eighteenth-century Mexico saw the invention of a unique pictorial genre known as castas (caste paintings). Created as sets of multiple images, the works document the process of mestizaje (racial mixing) among Amerindians, Spaniards, and Africans. The story the paintings tell, reinforced by the inscriptions, is that the mixture of Spaniards and Indians gave back “pure” or white Spaniards, while the union of Spaniards and Indians with Africans led to racial degeneration. Paradoxically, the inclusion of local products presented the New World as a place of boundless natural wonder and emphasized the colonists’ pride in the diversity and prosperity of the land—a friction that permeates the genre.
The figures’ dress and occupations reinforce their social standing. For example, some Spanish men hold a sword—a privilege that in colonial legislation was only reserved for this group Two works portray women of African descent wearing a distinctive overblouse fastened with gold or silver brooches and colorful ribbons. Sumptuary laws banned Black women and their children from wearing Spanish-style clothing. The fashion they developed in response, which recalls the tunics worn by Moorish women in southern Spain, was often singled out by travelers as highly ostentatious.
- Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici, edited by Ilona Katzew. Exh. Cat. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Mexico City: Fomento Cultural Banamex; New York: DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2017.
- Katzew, Ilona, ed. Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800: Highlights from LACMA’s Collection. Exh. Cat. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; New York: DelMonico Books/D.A.P., 2022.
- Katzew, Ilona. “De español y torna atrás, tente en el aire by Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz” Chiricú Journal (Indiana University Press) 3, no. 2 (2019).