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Casta paintings: constructing identity in Spanish colonial America

Viceroyalty of New Spain

Video transcript

[Music] we're here in the Denver Art Museum looking at a set of Casta paintings by an artist named Francisco Clara it's the only complete set of pasta paintings in the United States there are normally 16 but today and the gallery is only 14 are up two are being incorporated into the work of a contemporary Latino artist it shows the interest in these paintings by artists and by the public these are fascinating images to us today so let's talk about what we're seeing what we're looking at is a series of images that describe what was seen as racial mixing in New Spain they were produced in Mexico which was a colony or Viceroyalty of Spain ruled by a viceroy who was a stand-in for the spanish king so we have to remember that in New Spain there were Spanish people who were born in the Americas they're Spanish people who emigrated to the Americas and there were indigenous people but there were also Africans who were brought to New Spain as slaves and there was a hierarchy people who were Spanish born or Creole we're at the top of that hierarchy they had many more economic and educational opportunities then at the bottom of that hierarchy they intermarried they had children and there was a racial mixing that caused anxiety in the Spanish colonies in America there was more of an ability for the lesser nobility for even people of the lower classes to change their position to redefine themselves as higher class and in part this probably caused anxiety for the Spaniards and the Creoles and it seems like the cost of paintings are in part a way to codify these racial groups typically for Casta paintings we see a label at the bottom that explains what we're seeing in this first painting the inscription tells us de español India nests a mist Issa which means from a Spanish father and an Indian woman comes masti say child and we can tell he's Spanish by his European clothing that three-part hat and that he looks like an official of some sort so we're looking at a member of the Spanish elite and similarly we can tell from the woman that she is indigenous by her clothing in this painting you can see that there's various fruits that were native to the Americas for instance there's pineapple and it looks like perhaps papaya and then in the second painting we have a Spanish man and a Castilla woman and their child then is Spanish as we move through the series people are depicted in occupations they're working there's less leisure activities although things vary from set to set so laborers are associated with people lower down in that hierarchy people of more mixed race so to speak race was a fluid category it wasn't necessarily as strict as these Casta paintings depict it to be from what we know many if not most Casta paintings were produced for export for Spain for Spanish as well as broader European viewers and there's evidence that the first set of Casta paintings produced in 1711 might have been commissioned for the Viceroy of New Spain and most likely he would have brought that set of Casta paintings back to Spain with him when he returned so we have to ask what was their motivation in commissioning these on the one hand a lot of the cost of paintings showing these products of the Americas and these commodities they're depicting New Spain as this land of boundless natural wonders and so in that sense they do seem to be showing a sense of pride that the residents of New Spain including the Creoles may have had for their home on the other hand Spanish viewers also might be seeing more exotic depiction of New Spain so we see for example woman who's making tortillas we see someone making tamales we see Molay and meat being prepared so this interest in the exotic food of New Spain and we also see New Spain so this crossroads between Asia and Spain and particularly painting number fourteen where we see this blue and white porcelain that was potentially made in Asia and then traveled on the Manila galleons through New Spain so the bounty of New Spain through the fruits and vegetables the productivity of the people of New Spain in the things that they labor to produce we have a sense of harmony and for the most part in family relationships we know that Clara was born in Spain and he was a member of the art Academy in Madrid and then was involved in the art academy in Mexico City and more recent research is indicating that the genre of Costa painting might have been developed by painters in Mexico City who are involved with a bid to elevate the status of painting as well as their own professional status and we should say too that these paintings are being discussed by art historians we're still working on researching them and interpreting them and so it's interesting to think about what we might learn about them in the future [Music]