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Casta paintings: constructing identity in Spanish colonial America

Viceroyalty of New Spain

Video transcript

(gentle music) - We are here in the Denver Art Museum, looking at a set of Casta paintings by an artist named Francisco Clapara. It's the only complete set of Casta paintings in the United States. There are normally 16, but today in the galleries only 14 are up. Two are being incorporated into the work of a contemporary Latino artists. 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 Vice Royalty of Spain, ruled by a Vice Roy, 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 America. They were Spanish people 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've 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 cause 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 Casta Paintings are in part, a way to codify these racial groups. - Typically for Costa paintings, we see a label at the bottom that explains what we're seeing. - In this first painting, the inscription tells us, (foreign language) which means from a Spanish father and an Indian woman comes a Mestisa child. - And we can tell he's Spanish by his European clothing, that three part hat, in fact 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's 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 Castisa 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 have 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've been commissioned for the Vice Roy 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, out of the Casta Paintings showing these products of the Americas in 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 seen more exotic depiction of new Spain. - So we see, for example, a woman who's making Tortias, we see someone making Tamales, we see Moley and meat being prepared. So this interests in the exotic food, of new Spain. - And we also see new Spain, this crossroads between Asia and Spain and particularly the painting number 14. Where we see this blue and white porcelain, that was potentially made in Asia and then traveled on the Manila and 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 Clapara 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 Casta painting, it 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. (gentle music)