This set of eight casta
paintings, rendered in exquisite detail by 18th
century Mexican master José de Alcíbar, is an excellent example of this uniquely colonial Mexican style. A extraordinary find from a United States collection, several of the works are signed by the artist and dated 1778,
contributing to their rarity. Named for the Spanish legal segregation system established in the early 17th
paintings display an invented taxonomy of human races. Likely originally part of a group of sixteen or more paintings, this set demonstrates eight of the casta
pairings invented by Spanish colonizers to “narrate the process of racial mixing in the colony.” (1)
Carlos III, who ruled the Spanish Empire from 1759-1788, implemented dramatic reforms in Mexico to maximize the colony’s economic benefit to Spain, and to curb what was seen as a derelict and unproductive society dominated by racial “hybrids.” First among these reforms was a complete restructuring of the colonial administration which significantly diluted the power of the Church, allowing for rapid expansion of trade. Second was an increase in taxes and improved management of estancos:
royal monopolies on products such as mercury, playing cards, salt, paper, ice cream, and tobacco. The impact of these new regulations and monopolies is evidenced in this group of castas
, many of which not only advertise products like tobacco, but also depict scenes of commerce and daily life in Mexico City. In these works, Alcíbar uses the casta
format to capture the contemporary moment, creating complex scenes of ordinary life, and portraying the rapid development of Mexico City and Mexican culture during this period of globalization.
The central composition of De Español, y Mulata, nace Morisca,
unfolds against the charmingly rendered backdrop of the ancient floating gardens of Xochimilco. The canal system supporting these gardens, which originally supplied food for inhabitants of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), were adapted by the Spanish as transport routes for agricultural goods but also as gardens for recreation. Alcíbar depicts a woman playing the lute as she is steered in a small canoe alongside bountiful floating fields and tradesmen, capturing the changing nature of the city and the close relationship between commerce and leisure.
In De Español y India, nace Mestiza, a Spanish gentleman examines goods offered for sale by an Indian woman and their daughter. The wide variety of textiles and styles of shoes depicted by Alcíbar indicates not only the growth of local production, but also the influence of developed trade routes with both the East and the West. As the central hub of the Manila Galleon trade, Mexico City benefited from the exchange of porcelain, silk, ivory, spices, and other goods from East Asia in exchange for South American silver.
The aesthetic influences of this exchange are visible in the elaborate silk and embroidered garments worn by many of the aristocratic figures in these paintings, but also in the everyday objects that are present in the background of the scenes. In the kitchen scene, De Español y Negra, nace Mulata, Alcíbar depicts the woman in a delicate white dress adorned with intricate blue floral patterning, evocative of the Chinese and Japanese ceramics that were fashionable at the time. On the table behind her, talavera bowls are stacked alongside Chinese-inspired blue and white ceramics, produced by Mexican artisans to satisfy increasingly cosmopolitan tastes.
Vibrant and delicately rendered, each individual work offers an elaborate portrait of colonial Mexican society. As a group, they range from moralizing to charming to perhaps satirical, and invite the spectator to closely observe each meticulously painted detail for its embedded meanings. Beguiling and complex, Alcíbar’s eight paintings offer a fascinating peek into the past.
(1) Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico, New Haven, 2004, p. 61