Casta Paintings Revisited: The Case For Single-Panel Analysis and Artist Agency

By Alana Coates
The University of Texas at San Antonio
College of Liberal and Fine Arts, Department of Art and Art History
December 2012

The objective of this thesis is to question the dominant theory that casta paintings depict a social hierarchy in which Spanish superiority is emphasized.  Comparing the recent scholarship in the field to a single-panel casta painting by Ignacio María Barreda, I explore the possibility of communal unification rather than social degeneration of the castas class.  Formal analysis of the visual elements in this single-panel casta painting suggests that previous scholarship has given inequitable weight to the labels of miscegenation, an analytical approach that has resulted in narrow interpretations of casta paintings.  This investigation into casta paintings places priority on the visual aspects first, and explores the linguistic history of the associated text second. Why does negative and demeaning nomenclature in these paintings not correlate with the visuals?  It is my contention that because the painters of this genre exercised artistic agency and because they were of Native and African ancestry themselves, it is unlikely that they would have intentionally portrayed a detrimental self-image of the castas class, as has been the prevailing theory.

This analysis further examines seventeenth century Dutch visual traditions to include genre paintings, prints and civic descriptions, cartography and costume illustration in relation to casta paintings; the former sources lend support to my thesis that casta paintings emphasize casta pride, a sense of community, and even humor, over Spanish superiority.

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