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Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 62, Number 1, July 2005
pp. 122-123 | 10.1353/tam.2005.0137

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. By Ilona Katzew. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 242. Color and black & white illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $60.00 cloth.

Perhaps not since the eighteenth century have Mexico's casta paintings received so much attention. Exhibitions of the paintings are no longer rare, and art historians have now identified over a hundred sets or series. A growing body of literature on the paintings culminated in 2003 with Magali Carrera's Imagining Identity in New Spain, which was to date the most complex and comprehensive historical study of the images. Now, hot on the heels of Carrera's monograph, comes Ilona Katzew's compelling study. Like Carrera's, Katzew's book is history as much as art history, with the paintings analyzed firmly in the context of the society that produced them. A beautifully produced, oversized glossy volume with 200 illustrations, half of them in color, Casta Painting accompanied a 2004 exhibition of such paintings in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Far more than an exhibition catalogue, however, the book is a well-researched historical monograph that complement's Carrera's book in its use of archival sources and the sophistication of its analysis.

As Katzew observes at the start, casta paintings portrayed "the alleged process of race mixing in New Spain," and were traditionally seen as reflections of a Mexican social reality, "commissioned by Spanish functionaries as souvenirs" (p. 1). Taking aim at the dying myth that the paintings were a clear window onto reality, Katzew argues that they reflected elite views of Mexican society reality—and how the elite thought society should be arranged. She identifies a shift in the substance of the paintings during the reign of Charles III (1759-88). Earlier paintings (1711-60) embodied—and were fostered by—a sense of criollismo or colonial pride, while later series emphasized social stratification and economic productivity, with fewer racial stereotypes and more depictions of issues of concern to reformers. Katzew wishes to show how "vision and power intersected in the colonial world" (p. 4) by arguing that the evolution of the paintings, through to their demise at the turn of the nineteenth century, reveals the evolution of elite concerns in Mexico.

Katzew's contribution to our understanding of late-colonial society is based not only in her detailed presentation and discussion of the paintings, but in her use of primary sources. These include a 1754 parody of colonial racial stereotypes titled "Ordenanzas del Baratillo de México," and a 1763 manuscript on the "Origen, costumbres y estado presente de mexicanos y filipinos"—which featured descriptions, as well as drawings, of casta types. She also makes extensive reference to the secondary literature on colonial Mexico, most notably the debate on whether this was a society structured on class or race. In fact, the debate has never been quite that black and white, as Katzew recognizes. The casta system was a framework that theoretically—from the elite viewpoint, ideally—categorized, organized, and controlled the colonial population. But, like the casta system itself, race was in reality an unstable and fluid concept, at best "a metaphor used to categorize people" (p. 202)—a metaphor that was increasingly flawed during the colonial period, as contemporaries realized. Thus the casta system and the paintings that illustrated it presented [End Page 122] race-mixing within a framework of social control. The paintings reflect not simple racial realities, but "the construction of the racial culture of the time" (p. 61).

Although this is the most extensive academic presentation of casta paintings to date, it hardly exhausts the phenomenon as a source of study. As Katzew notes, this is "a genre with many meanings" (p. 201). Her book will be of interest to a wide range of scholars and students, and should do much to stimulate ongoing interest and analysis of these fascinating images.

Matthew Restall
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania
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