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Unknown artist [Mexican], From Indian and Mestiza, Coyote, c. 1760-70


 Miguel Cabrera 
[Mexican], From 
Spaniard and Mulatto, 
Morisca, 1763


Jose Joaquin 
Mangon [Mexican], 
Spaniard and Mestiza 
Produce a Castiza, 
c. 1770. 

Unknown artist 
[Mexican],From Return-
Backwards and 
Grifo, Chino, 
c. 1770

Unknown artist 
[Mexican], Black 
and Spaniard 
Makes Mulatto, 
c. 1780.

 Black and Indian 
Makes Wolf.

 Indian and Albarazada 
Produce a Chamizo. 

 Unknown artist 
[Peruvian], Mestizo 
and Mestiza,
Mestizo, c. 1770

new world orders:

casta painting and
colonial latin america
at the americas society

by Yasmin Ramirez
Walter Benjamin's dictum that every work of 

art is also a work of barbarism comes to 

mind with "New World Orders," an exhibition 

of Spanish colonial casta paintings 

currently on display at the Americas 

Society. "Casta" is Spanish for caste and 

these "casta paintings" are incredibly 

frank documents--unparalleled by anything 

in our time--of the race-based social 

hierarchy that existed in colonial Latin 

America during the 17th and 18th century. 

However much these paintings can be seen 

today to suggest harmonious coexistence of 

Indian, Spaniard and Black, in 18th-century 

Mexico they also elaborated relations of 

social power and control. 

Bearing titles such as Espanol con India 

sale Mulato (Spaniard with Black makes 

Mulatto), casta paintings display male and 

female couples of varying ethnicities with 

their mixed-raced children. The works 

follow an order premised on the idea that 

each race carries a distinct kind of blood 

(with Spanish blood linked to civilization-- 

no surprise--and Black blood associated 

with slavery and degeneracy). Casta 

painting cycles therefore typically begin 

with a depiction of a "pure" Spaniard with 

a "pure" African or Indian mate that 

respectively bear a mulatto or a mestizo 

child. From that progeny onwards, however, 

the further racial/ethnic mixtures take on 

Byzantine dimensions. Casta-painting series 

usually identify 16 racial taxonomies, 

including zoologically inspired terms such 

as "coyote and "wolf"--in one bizarrely 

named racial classification, children born 

of mulatto and mestiza couples are called 

"lobo tente en el ayre" (Wolf-Hold-


In the weird melting pot forged from New 

World colonialism and Spanish Catholicism, 

racial mixing was depicted with an intimacy 

that is absent from British and North 

American art of that (or any other) era. 

According to the racialist notions of the 

day, "purity of blood" was considered a 

virtue; consequently, Africans and Indians 

are nobly rendered. Curiously, the mixed-

race people in casta paintings tend to have 

southern European features: slim noses, 

curly hair, almond-shaped eyes. Backgrounds 

similarly blend European and indigenous 

taste. New world fruits and vegetables such 

as pineapples, avocados and chili peppers 

are displayed in kitchens and dining rooms 

furnished with European wares. Landscapes 

are dotted by fanciful neo-classic 

fountains and urns. It is with these 

settings and props that the elitist 

intentions of this art reveal themselves. 

Third- and fourth-generation mixed-race 

couples are clearly poorer, wearing 

shabbier clothes in more straitened 

circumstances, than their purer-blooded 

ancestors. Spaniards and their Indian or 

African brides sport rich European costumes 

while Lobo- Mestizo couples wear plain or 

ragged dress. 

Curator Ilona Katzew, an art historian at 

NYU's Institute of Fine Arts, notes in the 

catalogue that Spanish colonists 

commissioned casta paintings and sent them 

abroad, usually as gifts, to display their 

wealth and to demonstrate that a noble 

class system prevailed in the New World. 

Because the colonists wanted to make a good 

impression, some of New Spain's finest 

artists were hired to paint casta cycles. 

However, Europeans did not regard casta 

paintings as art objects but as 

ethnographic illustrations. In fact, some 

paintings entered Spain's first natural 

history museum, the Real Gabinete de 

Historia Natural. 

Although practically all the works on view 

are marvelous examples of colonial 

painting, it is still difficult to admire 

them simply and "purely" for their formal 

virtues as works of art. Rather, casta 

painting is an interesting study precisely 

because the marginal position the genre 

occupies in art history can be linked to 

the marginal position that mixed-raced 

people have held in western culture. The 

affirmation of casta painting as an early 

form of identity art--which this exhibition 

tacitly reinforces--represents a real 

paradigm shift. Multicultural advocacy has 

liberated casta painting from the curio 

cabinet, but the genre's problematic 

content may later land it in another 


"New World Orders: Casta Painting and 

Colonial Latin America" at the Americas 

Society, Sept. 26-Dec. 22, 1996, 680 Park 

Avenue, New York, NY 10021.

YASMIN RAMIREZ is a New York art historian 

and critic.