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Imagining Identity in New Spain

Imagining Identity in New Spain
Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings

Using an interdisciplinary approach that also considers legal, literary, and religious documents of the period, Magali Carrera focuses on eighteenth-century portraiture and casta paintings to understand how the people and spaces of New Spain were conceptualized and visualized.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

April 2003
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216 pages | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | 12 color and 60 b&w illus., 4 tables |

Reacting to the rising numbers of mixed-blood (Spanish-Indian-Black African) people in its New Spain colony, the eighteenth-century Bourbon government of Spain attempted to categorize and control its colonial subjects through increasing social regulation of their bodies and the spaces they inhabited. The discourse of calidad (status) and raza (lineage) on which the regulations were based also found expression in the visual culture of New Spain, particularly in the unique genre of casta paintings, which purported to portray discrete categories of mixed-blood plebeians.

Using an interdisciplinary approach that also considers legal, literary, and religious documents of the period, Magali Carrera focuses on eighteenth-century portraiture and casta paintings to understand how the people and spaces of New Spain were conceptualized and visualized. She explains how these visual practices emphasized a seeming realism that constructed colonial bodies—elite and non-elite—as knowable and visible. At the same time, however, she argues that the chaotic specificity of the lives and lived conditions in eighteenth-century New Spain belied the illusion of social orderliness and totality narrated in its visual art. Ultimately, she concludes, the inherent ambiguity of the colonial body and its spaces brought chaos to all dreams of order.


2004 Book Award
Association of Latin American Art

  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Visual Practices in Late-Colonial Mexico
  • Chapter One: Identity by Appearance, Judgment, and Circumstances: Race as Lineage and Calidad
  • Chapter Two: The Faces and Bodies of Eighteenth-Century Metropolitan Mexico: An Overview of Social Context
  • Chapter Three: Envisioning the Colonial Body
  • Chapter Four: Regulating and Narrating the Colonial Body
  • Chapter Five: From Popolacho to Citizen: The Re-vision of the Colonial Body
  • Epilogue: Dreams of Order
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Magali M. Carrera is Professor of Art History at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.


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. . . colonial discourse produces the colonized as a social reality which is at once an "other" and yet entirely knowable and visible. It resembles a form of narrative whereby the productivity and circulation of subjects and signs are bound in a reformed and recognizable totality. It employs a system of representation, a regime of truth, that is structurally similar to realism.
—Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture


In the process of researching and writing this book, I found myself constantly returning to the 1769 painting The Painter's Cupboard, an image I had first encountered at the Pinacoteca Virreinal in Mexico City many years ago (figure I.1). This beautifully executed image by Antonio Pérez de Aguilar, who was active in New Spain between 1749-1769, is one of the few surviving still-life images of the colonial period. It is a painting that one could easily disregard or overlook. Its ostensible topic, artists' tools and props, seems inconsequential and mundane, especially when compared to other opulent and ornate religious and secular paintings of eighteenth-century New Spain. In the painting, keys dangle in the lock of the wooden cabinet's closed glass door, and the three shelves inside contain various objects that seem hastily placed. Crammed on the top shelf are a pen, loose paper, books, what appears to be a lute, a violin, and a basket that holds a doll, a clay jar, a palette, and brushes. The middle shelf contains a haphazard arrangement of two silver plates, circular wooden boxes, two loaves of bread, a small clay pitcher with a spoon, and a shallow bowl askew on top of a small wooden barrel. On the bottom shelf, the artist has left a straw basket, another pitcher (possibly of copper) topped with a small ceramic bowl, a patterned plate, three glasses, and two dark glass bottles, one with a short neck and one with a long neck.


Given the late-colonial artists' propensity for highly ordered imagery, a painting of disheveled objects resting on shelves seems an anomaly. One scholar has suggested that in this painting the artist has shifted from the contrived composition of baroque still life to the austere Enlightenment idea of "The portrayal of ordinary objects in the dignity of their everyday existence." In its present location in the magnificently refurbished Museo Nacional del Arte in Mexico City, the painting's adjacent label states that the painting is a metaphor for human existence: objects on the top shelf refer to the life of the mind, that is, literature, art, and music; and items on the other shelves are concerned with daily physical subsistence. These stylistic and metaphorical references are, without a doubt, critical elements of the image. I am fascinated, however, not just with the totality of the cupboard but also with the specificity of its contents and their ordering. I am interested in unlocking the cupboard, opening the glass door, looking at each object, and wondering how it came to be made, who was meant to use it, and why it appears on one shelf and not another.


Curiously, while studying the numerous secular images of late-colonial people, I recognized that the objects on the cabinet's shelves are commonly found in the eighteenth-century secular paintings of New Spain. The paper, pen, books, and musical instruments of the top shelf are found exclusively in association with elite individuals (for example, see figures 3.29, 3.32, and 5.2). The doll might have been a prop used in another type of elite portrait known as a monja coronada, an image of a newly professed nun usually shown wearing her habit, an escudo or chest shield, and a flowered crown, and holding a flowered scepter and a doll-like image of the Christ child (for example, see figure 3.1). The objects on the second and third shelves—plates, ceramic vases, glass bottles, boxes, and bread—are regularly found in casta images, a genre of painting illustrating mixed-blooded plebeians (for example, see figures 3.23, 3.30, and 3.4).


Certain cultural associations are evident as well. Some objects are very clearly European in source: the musical instruments, the glasses, the patterned plate, the artist's tools, and the bread. Others are truly of the Americas: the weaving technique of the basket on the bottom shelf is indigenous in origin, and the basket itself may have been used for holding tortillas, a traditional food; the clay, copper, and silver of the plates and jars are indigenous materials as well. And then there are hybrid objects, such as indigenous clay molded into European shapes. The cabinet narrates a dynamic mix of European, indigenous, and hybrid objects. The objects in the cabinet, paralleling the inhabitants of colonial New Spain, are of diverse, distinct, and mixed identities.


Importantly, the objects are visually framed by the cabinet door and related within the ordered space: the upper shelf contains objects associated with elite living conditions, while the second and third shelves hold items that, while possibly used by the elite, most likely refer to plebeian daily existence. What may seem a disorderly but uncomplicated still life is, in fact, quite ordered and intricate: the painting becomes a portrait of the social economy of bodies and spaces that constituted late-colonial culture. Put in another way, Pérez de Aguilar's painting constructs and refers to social identity, not by reference to the figurative image of a person, but by the conceptual linking of social markers and ordered spaces associated with kinds of people. In the following pages, I explore the visual practices and themes exemplified in The Painter's Cupboard. I investigate how certain artistic practices of eighteenth-century New Spain visually conceptualized specific social and political constructions of the people of urban New Spain.


In chapter 1, I begin this exploration by looking at the mechanisms by which people and spaces were aligned and ordered in late-colonial Mexico. Because I believe that it is insufficient to talk about material culture without some sense of the texture and context of its production, I examine the curious 1789 court case of Doña Margarita Castañeda. Doña Margarita was an española, or Spanish woman, whose name had been written in the wrong baptismal record book, the libro de castas (book of mixed-blooded people), instead of the appropriate book, the libro de españoles (book of Spaniards). In trying to ascertain if this woman was a true Spaniard, the court did not consider the physical person of Doña Margarita; rather, it was her social body that was assessed, classified, and inscribed within a hierarchy of social meanings and values. Doña Margarita's case introduces the comprehensive issues of the colonial body, its territories, and eighteenth-century techniques and practices of corporeal differentiation. I argue that this case must be considered in the context of the constructs of calidad, or status, and raza, or lineage, and not of twenty-first-century notions of "race." In addition, I consider the utilization of mimicry, hybridity, and ambiguity, theoretical constructs derived from post-colonial writings, as tools to better understand the conditions and construction of New Spanish colonial discourse.


Chapter 2 provides an overview of Doña Margarita's world through a summary and analysis of social and demographic data on eighteenth-century New Spain. Based on current scholarly research, it clarifies for the reader the social and historical setting of the visual practices of New Spain. Spain's Bourbon dynasty established a social perspective that would emphasize and promote ideals of order, orderliness, and productivity effected through law and management at a time when demographic conditions in metropolitan New Spain were erupting and devolving into more and more disorder.


The next three chapters take up a detailed consideration of the visual practices of eighteenth-century New Spain through analysis of the visual structuring of examples of eighteenth-century portraiture and three sets of casta paintings. In chapter 3, we see that through time, casta paintings incorporate more and more of the lived environment of metropolitan New Spain, and surveillance of people becomes more intense. Identifying these images as illustrations of "race" is a static, twenty-first-century reading of the imagery, and it may actually obscure more complex, subtle, and comprehensive readings of the panels, especially in light of the eighteenth-century superceding notions of hybridity as formulated in the concepts of raza and calidad. Secular painting, like religious art, was dynamic in style and content and reactive to social and political changes.


In chapter 4, I look at the question, Why would casta paintings emphatically and repeatedly illustrate a phenomenon—mixed blood—whose demographic identification was inconstant and diminishing and, ultimately, nonexistent? Analysis of the production of casta genre paintings as a visual practice must take into consideration the volatile and emerging conditions evidenced in demographic data and archival documents of eighteenth-century Mexico. By the mid-eighteenth century, the discrete categories of castas hierarchy were disappearing demographically, yet the paintings insist on illustrating a complete, and nonfunctioning, taxonomy of castas. Thus, there is a continuing production of casta paintings through the century, at the same time as the mixed-blooded people are disappearing in general from social apperception. I argue that the visual strategy of surveillance is not just about looking; rather, it constructs the very object of its observation: hybrid bodies, that is, people of mixed blood.


Finally, in chapter 5, I examine why casta painting production ends in the early nineteenth century. I investigate the legal requirements of citizenship in the early nineteenth century, as well as the possible impact of the establishment of the neoclassic ideas and ideals of the Academy of San Carlos at the end of the eighteenth century, which emphasized nationalistic imagery.


Overall, I argue that portraiture, and especially casta genre paintings, may better be understood as a set of visual practices embedded in, and reflective of, broader regulatory narratives of the late eighteenth century. These secular art practices narrated an illusion of totality in order to obscure the specificity of the lives and lived conditions of eighteenth-century New Spain.




“This book effectively integrates art history, literary history, and political and social history. . . . It will appeal to any well-educated reader and scholar of colonial Latin American studies . . . who will find it a unique lens through which to view this period and culture.”
Stacey Schlau, Professor of Spanish and Women’s Studies, West Chester University


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