Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 7, 2004
Magali M. Carrera Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. 216 pp.; 12 color ills.; 60 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (0292712456)

As the subtitle to Imagining Identity in New Spain indicates, Magali Carrera’s study of race, lineage, and the body in casta paintings and portraiture is much more than a strict art-historical analysis. Students of Latin American art, history, literature, and colonial studies, in particular, will find this book of interest. Carrera’s interdisciplinary approach integrates art history with social and political history and examines their relation through colonial theory. As she states early on, her aim is to consider how casta paintings and portraiture visually express the social and political constructions of the inhabitants of eighteenth-century New Spain. For the informed reader, this study is well presented, fresh, and intellectually stimulating, providing a new approach to understanding casta paintings and, to a lesser degree, portraiture. A general audience not familiar with colonial Latin American art or colonial theory will gain valuable insight into colonial visual practices and will appreciate Carrera’s ability to phrase complex theoretical concepts clearly.

Casta paintings are a series of usually sixteen canvases depicting the racially diverse inhabitants of the Americas. A genre exclusive to eighteenth-century Latin America, casta paintings are recognizable by a few consistent features: namely, each painting portrays an interracial couple with their offspring, and each includes text indicating the racial designation of the figures portrayed. Carrera also looks at eighteenth-century portraiture from New Spain, though she does not give it the same attention or depth of study as she gives casta paintings.

Divided into five chapters and an introduction and epilogue, Carrera’s book includes a description of casta paintings and visual practices in late colonial Mexico, a discussion of lineage and social status as components of race in New Spain (chapter 1), the social, political, and historical context of late colonial Mexico (chapter 2), the construction of the colonial body in casta paintings and portraiture (chapter 3), social and visual practices of regulating space and the colonial body in New Spain (chapter 4), and the impact of citizenship and the Royal Academy of Art, San Carlos, on the production of casta paintings.

The most significant contributions of Imagining Identity in New Spain are worth examining here. Looking carefully at the historical record, Carrera demonstrates that racial dynamics in New Spain were nuanced and involved historically specific notions of calidad and raza, roughly translated as social status and lineage, respectively. For Carrera, however, calidad is key to understanding the formation of the colonial body in New Spain. It derives from two distinct European Spanish debates: physiognomics and raza, the former of which was transformed in the Americas because of miscegenation, a phenomenon not encountered in Spain.

Carrera argues that at a time when the racial diversity of New Spain became difficult to monitor, physiognomics became an ideal system to determine the social body, or calidad of individuals. According to this system, one’s interior makeup could be discerned by his or her comportment and physical appearance. In other words, if one looked like and acted like a Spaniard, he or she could “pass” as one.

Homi Bhabha’s theoretical concepts of mimicry, hybridity, and ambivalence are also keys to understanding Carrera’s argument for social identities in New Spain and how they are visually constructed in casta paintings. She applies Bhabha’s ideas to the construction of colonial identity in casta paintings and portraiture by citing his argument that colonial discourse produces the colonial subject as one that is knowable and visible, yet distinctly “other.” Under the guise of realistic portrayals, casta paintings, Carrera argues, not only make their figures knowable and visible, they also create the very figures themselves, thereby establishing a “regime of the truth, that is structurally similar to realism,” to use Bhabha’s words (The Location of Culture [New York: Routledge, 1994], 70–71). Furthermore, as the eighteenth century progressed, Carrera observes, the background setting of casta paintings becomes more expansive and specific to the calidad of the figures portrayed. This observation is particularly revealing of the colonial nature of casta paintings and, from an art-historical perspective, perhaps the most significant.

To demonstrate her point, Carrera analyzes three representative sets of casta paintings dating respectively from the early, mid, and late eighteenth century. The backgrounds in the earliest series are shallow and ambiguous, but by the mid and late eighteenth century artists incorporate private and public settings into the paintings, thereby locating the figures within a clear social environment commensurate to their calidad. For example, in late-eighteenth-century casta paintings, portrayals of Indians and mestizos may depict them selling goods at the marketplace, in tattered clothing, or transporting gourds of water, while Spaniards are shown in domestic interiors writing letters or playing instruments. Carrera attributes the gradual incorporation of environmental settings in casta paintings to the idea of the all-penetrating gaze that creates, perceives, and orders the whole social body, as well as the New Spanish government’s growing interest in ordering its racially diverse society. This explanation, based, in part, on the work of Michel Foucault and expanded upon by Bhabha, supports Carrera’s argument that casta paintings are founded upon broad regulatory methods of constructing and observing colonial bodies.

While Carrera argues these points effectively for casta paintings, her examination of portraiture is less ambitious. She states that both genres are closely related in that they are embedded in the broader discourse of the human body and incorporate calidad and raza into their subjects. A breakdown of the illustrations in her book is indicative of her focus: out of sixty illustrated images, six are portraits and forty-six are casta paintings. Furthermore, little is said about the impact of physiognomics or the effects of late-eighteenth-century social and political reforms and the establishment of the Royal Academy of Art on colonial portraiture—all topics she considers carefully in relation to casta paintings.

Carrera is right to say that reading casta paintings as mere illustrations of the sistema de castas, or system of castes (referring to the social hierarchy system in New Spain), fails to account for the changes that the genre experienced over time. To explain these changes she looks closely at eighteenth-century physiognomics and how they were applied to the racially diverse inhabitants of New Spain. She also examines demographics and the Bourbon government’s attempts to regulate and monitor public spaces as well as the appearance, comportment, and activities of its citizens, particularly in urban centers like Mexico City. Absent from her study, however, is a discussion of patronage patterns in casta paintings. As María Concepción García Sáiz and Illona Katzew (casta-painting scholars) have stated previously, it is likely that government, military, and church officials, among others, commissioned or owned casta series. García Sáiz has noted that the majority of extant casta series have surfaced primarily in Spain, which suggests elite patronage and a specific audience (indeed, a series was commissioned for the king of Spain himself). An analysis of audience, patronage, and provenance would add historical backing to Carrera’s theoretical arguments regarding the construction and surveillance of colonial bodies. It may also point to other functions the genre fulfilled, such as its pseudoscientific means of visualizing the exotic qualities of the Americas—a topic of great interest to Europeans.

Linking the changing trends in casta paintings to developments in religious painting, Carrera cites Marcus Burke’s work on religious painting from New Spain. Burke has noted that after the 1730s, painters of religious imagery began to change their strategies to create more comprehensive iconographic programs as a means to compete with the production of large-scale retablos (altar pieces). In addition to her more theoretical reasons for the incorporation and expansion of environmental settings in casta paintings, Carrera argues that painters were inspired to initiate this trend, in part, because of the changes taking place in religious painting. While this is an interesting argument worth further study, I would argue that other relevant factors influencing the changes taking place in casta paintings include the rising European interest in the social, geological, and botanical features of the Americas. The consideration of these historical influences could provide yet another significant perspective to the expanding background field in casta paintings and the incorporation of botanical and man-made items (such as certain textiles, ceramics, and other utilitarian goods) particular to the Americas.

Finally, a new and significant contribution made by Imagining Identity in New Spain is Carrera’s argument that the new citizenship requirements and the emphasis placed on nationalistic imagery by the newly established Art Academy in Mexico City jointly contributed to the end of the casta genre at the turn of the nineteenth century. Carrera skillfully demonstrates the transformation of casta paintings into genre, landscape, and allegorical paintings that typify nineteenth-century academic painting in Mexico and embody nationalistic ideals.

In sum, Imagining Identity in New Spain is a significant contribution to colonial Latin American studies in its effective incorporation of art-historical and literary analysis, colonial theory, and political and social history. Carrera’s bibliography lists a medley of important primary and secondary sources from various historical and disciplinary perspectives, which will be a useful resource for students. As a whole, this study is a model of excellent interdisciplinary scholarship and will serve as an important point of departure for future studies. It will also stand as an influential work for understanding the historical, artistic, and theoretical issues involved in casta paintings, and, more broadly, the visual practices of late colonial Latin America.

James M. Córdova
Associate Professor of Art History
University of Colorado–Boulder