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Friday, February 22, 2019

Diversity in Art

Let me introduce you to some artists I have been learning more about over the last couple of years. I really love their work.  Before I give you more background information, just take a few minutes to study these (there are better resolutions on the internet, but this is a start).  Take your time. See what you notice about them, what you think about what you are seeing.

The first set is by Miguel Cabrera. During his lifetime he was considered the greatest painter of his time and country:

I love that gleam in the father's eye, and if you look closely you see the blanket is frayed right around the baby's little bottom.  And I suspect that oldest child is quite the rascal, don't you?

The mother's skirt!  Beautiful embroidery.  And I have seen just that same look on a grandchild's face as she is being handed over to daddy

This one below is my favourite. It just gives me warm feelings all over:

The mother's dress in the picture below is, again- sumptious embroidery work. The basket of food is interesting.  And is Dad giving the child a lemon or taking it away?

Jose Juaquin Mangon painted the next one:

I think they are taking Dad his lunch at work, a sweet scene.

Below: I wonder what Dad has been writing?  Is he perhaps writing a description of the flowers and fruit on the table? But baby has interrupted for some attention- and who needs baby toys when you have a live... parrot?

Juan Rodruiquez Juarez:

Below: Her dress is gorgeous. It's patterned on a native style known as a huipil.  His is European, right up that powdered wig.

More lovely embroidery, and music, too.  Are they playing and singing together as a fun family activity, for money, or is it a lesson?  I have no idea.  What do you think?

Morlete Ruiz (I believe he was married twice, and he fathered 19 children!) painted the next set:

What do you see? Who are these people?  Why is Ruiz painting their portraits?

All of these painters lived and worked in 18th century Mexico, then known as New Spain. Some of them were Spanish.  Nobody knows Cabrera's parentage, but his godparents were half black.  One of the painters was half Spanish and half Indian.   One of them had black grandparents but he was able to pass as Spanish and he mostly did.  Other known painters of Casta groups are Jose de Ibarra (Afro-Mexican, but passed as Spanish), Juan Correa (he considered himself 'mulatto), and others.

These paintings are called Casta paintings.  They are, I think, exclusively from New Spain in the 1700s.  These artists were well known in their day, and most of those we know by name were more famous for their other work.  They were frequently commissioned to paint religious paintings or portraits of high ranking politicians or churchmen.  For centuries, the Casta paintings were ignored or forgotten.  I found a 500 page history book entirely on the topic of the history of art in Mexico after Spain colonized her, and there's not a single mention of Casta painting in it, even though all of the above artists are mentioned, but only for their other work! The Casta paintings have regained attention and interest in the last few years.

Casta paintings were generally done in sets of 16 groupings.  The above artists (and a handful of others) are known to have done them because as well known artists, they signed their names to them.  Many Casta paintings are unsigned.

Many of the paintings include local flora and fauna, especially fruits to show a Spanish audience the bounty of the New World. Wikipedia says that Some were likely commissioned by Spanish functionaries as souvenirs of Mexico, because everything in the New World was so different and strange to those back home in Spain (and other parts of Europe).  I guess it was kind of like tourists buying postcards, only far more expensive.

Please bear with me as I continue,  because at first some of you may be horrified, but I think it's worthwhile to explore this genre.

 I heard about these paintings while reading a book by Charles Mann called 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Made (he's also done another called 1493 for Young People by Charles Mann, which I highly, highly recommend).  There is no way to sugar coat this, so I'll just say it.  At least one purpose of the paintings was to classify and rank people by their racial background.

According to the author of 1493, they were commissioned by the government and one of their purposes was to help local officials properly classify people under their jurisdiction (it was part of their official ID, their casta designation). This makes sense because the reason for the limited time window on Casta paintings is that they ceased after  after the Mexican War of Independence, when legal racial categories were repudiated in independent Mexico.  Racial classification could also determine your job opportunities.  For example, according to that 1950s art book (I will remember the title before this post is finished!), those classified as mulatto could not join the pottery guild.  According to this site, Mexican women with known African ancestry were prohibited from wearing Spanish dress- so the officials needed to know your ancestry to be sure you were following the law.  However.... more on that further down.

  The sets are always numbered and number 1 is always a Spaniard husband, and the higher the numbers go, the darker the skin (except for the albinos) of the couples.   They had weird ideas that Albinism was actually inherited from African ancestry, so there are many albinos represented in the paintings.  The racist themes are not so obvious when you look at portraits individually, and presuming you don't know their background or the titles.  The painters themselves may be making some commentary of their own, I don't know, but some experts think so, and the family groups are generally so warm, loving, and tender that it's hard for me to see them in their original context. I like them for themselves, looked at individually.

However, if we were to see them in their full groups of sets of 16, the racist intent of the plan is more obvious. Incidentally, often each of the 16 categories was a separate painting, but sometimes a casta painting depicts all 16 in a single canvas, like this one.

I should add, there are a handful of exceptions to the generally warm and loving family scenes.  Some casta paintings depict domestic violence- sometimes the husband is beating or threatening to stab the wife, sometimes the wife is beating the husband or coming at him with a knife. But I have only seen three of four of those. Most of those I have seen are fairly represented by the above examples.  

The names of the paintings themselves are often problematic, to use a delicate word for an ugly issue, as each of the 16 'types' of children are given names representing their racial heritage as children of mixed marriages.  Not all of those names are complimentary. Some are called coyotes, some wolves, and some:

"For instance, a Spaniard and a mestizo produce a castizo (“burned tree”), while a Spaniard and a morisco (a muslim who had been forced to convert to Christianity) produce an albino torna atrás(“Return-Backwards”) and a No te entiendo (“I-Don’t-Understand-You”) with a Cambuja (offspring of an Indian woman and African man) makes a tente en el aire (“Hold-Yourself-in-Mid-Air”)." (source)

That's an assumption in the description I believe- moriscos were not necessarily muslims who were *forced* to convert. Many were forced.  Some converted voluntarily, and sometimes died for their faith, because Islam teaches that leaving the religion is punishable by death.
 But anyway.There is also one designation that is translated, "I don't even know what you are."  I forget which one that is supposed to be.  I wonder who came up with those names?

 It is interesting to learn that while the government intended them to be used one way, Mann says people actually used the classifications and paintings as a kind of recipe and/or tool for upward mobility.  They chose spouses for themselves or their children as a way to move up (remember this is an era and a culture where marriage for social convenience and improvement of your family is an accepted, even desirable and admirable function of marriage anyway), or they might bribe local officials to give them the casta designation they wanted regardless of where they fit- they could use the pictures to say, "see, I pass..."  Or, I imagine,  they could move to another area and say to the officials in charge of noting these things, 'Yes, my mother was a Spaniard. Don't believe me? Look at the casta paintings on your own walls and you can see that obviously I am in X category and not Y..." 

There were also options for those who were not interested in 'passing,' which the book talks about as well, but 'passing' itself had far less baggage in a culture where everybody was doing it and the officials and your neighbors were really just winking at it and everybody knew that everybody else probably had parents or grandparents who had done the same.  And it might mean the difference between joining a guild and being a qualified artisan or just being allowed to be the janitor.

In spite of the racist origins of the Casta paintings as a genre, when I look at them individually I cannot help but feel admiration, warmth, and curiosity.  I love the details the painters added showing how the families lives and work.  I love the dresses.  I love the food, the depictions of Mexican plants and wildlife.  I love the family warmth and affection shown in most of the pictures.  Even Ilona Katzeor, probably the America's biggest expert on Casta paintings, notes, " At the same time these are highly estheticized paintings that function as proud renditions of the local: their exquisite assortment of fruits and textiles alone make them fascinating images of the material culture of the period. And one cannot fail either to notice the great tenderness among the figures which serves to mask any sense of racial tension."

Most of the art critics I read point out that the more European the ancestry, the lower the numeral ranking- so again, if you are looking at the paintings as a numbered group, this is more disturbing and obvious.  But looked at without numbers and as individual works, it's a different story.  They also point out, those experts, that the higher the numbers, the poorer the subjects are.  Well, they are the experts after all.  However, I am not sure if that specific  aspect is particularly racist rather than realistic.   Since your ranking on the chart determined what guilds and jobs you were allowed to have, it would make sense that families classified as a number 13  in a Casta painting series would find it economically more difficult to find work than families classified as a two.  The *reasons* were related to race, but the paintings themselves in that regard were not.

For those reasons (the warmth and beauty of the works themselves), I would not hesitate to share them with my younger grandchildren as individual works of art, rather than as a set of Casta paintings showing race.  We can discuss that later when the kids are teens (or their parents can, and as the grandma, I have the privilege of leaving the hard discussions to the parents while I give the children candy and we look at pretty pictures together)

In fact, I put together a book of several of my favourites on Shutterfly for just that purpose.
Create your own custom photo books at
(for the next couple of days Shutterfly photo books are around 11 or 12 dollars, 40% off.  Periodically they go on sale for half off. Don't pay full price)

Tip: I include this in the booklet as well, but because the titles of the paintings are troublesome, I wouldn't use them with younger children at all.  What I would do is ask them to look at the painting and then think of the title they would choose for a painting.  You would not necessarily do this every time, as it might become tiresome. 

In the U.S. the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is known to have a few Casta paintings, including one that was missing for years and turned out to be stored under somebody's couch!  There's also a delicious mystery about the remaining missing Casta painting by Cabrera.

If you want to do your own research, there's a bit of biographical info on several of the above painters here (only a small bit of info on Casta paintings, mostly it's about their more religious works)

More paintings and background information here, including a full listing of the various 'castes'.

Some details on the dress and accessories of some Casta portraits here.

SEveral high resolution and beautiful images here.

That art history book which title I could not recall is Colonial art in Mexico by Manuel Toussaint.

If you want to put together your own group of paintings for picture study, and you are using Charlotte Mason's philosophy, this information will help you do so while being faithful to the principles.  The picture study is not the time for didacticicism. It's not the place for art history or art appreciation or socio-political history, either. It's the place for introducing children to six works by the same artist, works that you have chosen based on the value of the works themselves, not merely because they present a message you want to deliver.  

I have also put together a downloadable, printable packet of 9 of Miguel Cabrera's beautiful family pieces, along with some helps on picture study and background information that you can print out yourself or send to a print shop. You can purchase that here.
 (To print, set to landscape, and a high resolution)

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