This extraordinary Casta painting by José de Alzibar, one of Mexico's most important 18th century painters, is a rare find. Casta paintings were produced in Mexico in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. As strange as it might seem to us now, they were made for export to the Old World as depictions of both the richness and opportunities available in the New World, as well as showing (sometimes somewhat fancifully) the mixture of races the converging cultures produced.
Casta paintings were produced as a series of works done in a set order which started with the marriage of a Spaniard and a Mesoamerican which produced a mestizo (mixed) child (De Español e India nace Mestizo). In early examples of these works a Spaniard marries a high ranking Indian lady (probably of a higher social class than the adventuring Spaniard). The Indian lady is usually portrayed as a princess, bedecked in exotic textiles, lace, embroideries, gold jewelry and pearls as befits her high status. The same painting contains depictions of exotic fruit and other products of the new empire. Except for portraits, these Casta paintings were one of the few genre paintings produced at a time where artistic patronage was almost exclusively directed towards devotional imagery for the Catholic Church. But what is the most interesting legacy of the Casta genre are their depictions of everyday living – thanks to them views of doctors at work, artisans and merchants, even sock makers, have survived.
The present work, most probably number seven in a series of sixteen gives us a glimpse into the everyday life of the upper classes of Mexico. Its title, De Españól y Albina Nace Torna-Átras, translates as from a Spaniard and Albino is Born a Reversal. Unaware of later genetic explanations it was a way of explaining how characteristics from past generations would sometimes re-appear.
The present work is unique in that it contains one of the earliest depictions of spectacles in Mexican painting. It is slice of life in a upper middle class home – the figures are well dressed in contemporary costumes, from the lady of the house's richly embroidered skirt to the equally well-dressed bespectacled nanny in her serape to the servant girl. The house is well furnished with expensive tile walls, a massive elaborately carved armoire, several rush bottomed chairs and a painting on the wall. The servant girl holdings out a cup of chocolate which was a rare delicacy for only the very, very rich in Europe but in Mexico, would be much more readily available.