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Art Through Time: A Global View

Converging Cultures Art: Human Races (Las Castas)

» Unknown artist, Mexico

Human Races (Las Castas)

Human Races (Las Castas))
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, Mexico
Region: Mesoamerica, Central America, and the Caribbean
Date: 18th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 40 7/8 in. (104 cm.), W: 58 ¼ in. (148 cm.).
Location: Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlan, Mexico
Credit: Courtesy of Schalkwijk/Art Resource, NY

As early as the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors were procreating with local Indian women in Mexico.

By the end of the eighteenth century, sexual interaction and intermarriage among Spanish, Indians, and Africans in Mexico had resulted in a population that was approximately one-quarter interracial. Casta, or caste, paintings took the intermingling of races as their subject. Produced from the early 1800s until the first decade of the nineteenth century, casta paintings were usually created in sets of sixteen, with each scene comprised of a man and woman of differing races along with their progeny. Inscriptions identified the respective races of father, mother, and children. Sometimes, as with this painting, all sixteen figural groupings were combined on a single canvas. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, on occasion such scenes were integrated into representations of the marketplace.

Casta paintings have sometimes been interpreted as souvenirs for Spanish audiences. The inclusion of local foodstuffs, flora, and fauna in many of these images suggests that they were celebrations of colonial prosperity. The genre has also been linked to the Enlightenment impulse to classify for purposes of scientific and anthropological study. More recent scholarship, however, has noted that the paintings were created for local residents as well as Spanish viewers back in Europe, and argued that socio-political concerns were a greater factor in the creation of casta paintings than scientific interest in categorization and lineage.

From the beginning of the colonial period, the intermixing of races had been a point of anxiety among both Spanish and Creoles (individuals of Spanish parentage born in the Americas). As the interracial population grew throughout the eighteenth century and boundaries blurred between social and economic classes, as well as races, casta paintings sustained the illusion that racial identity was stable and reinforced hierarchies critical to maintaining colonial power.

Additional Resources

Bailey, Gauvin Alexander. Art of Colonial Latin America. London: Phaidon, 2005.

Carrera, Magali M. Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Museo Nacional del Virreinato Web site.

Rishel, Joseph J. The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2006.

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