cover image Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico

Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico

Ilona Katzew. Yale University Press, $65 (242pp) ISBN 978-0-300-10241-3

Casta paintings tell much about colonial Mexico; the idee fixe for the ruling classes was social stratification of Indians, Spaniards and Africans. Curator Katzew, who compiled this catalogue in conjunction with an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, explores the implications of the once popular genre devoted to depicting mixed-race couples and their progeny. For all the meticulously rendered domestic scenes, it is the inscriptions, such as""From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto,"" that declare the central purpose of these paintings:""'narrating' the process of miscegenation."" Typically serialized in 16 scenes, the portraits are organized by the skin tones of the couples--from lightest to darkest. Katzew's scholarship reveals a colonizing elite obsessed with race, a creole class eager to document its wealth, European collectors titillated by the""exotic"" and the Spanish empire's attempt to control an increasingly fluid society through rigid hierarchy. Though the author offers little formal analysis in terms of artistic technique or composition, her examination of dress and hairstyles, among other motifs, unveils loaded meanings in the smallest details. More sociology than art history, Katzew's volume presents a fascinating study of racial anxieties and begs questions of this unique art form's legacy. 100 b&w and 100 color reproductions.