The paintings sent by Don Manuel de Amat y Junyet in 1770 to the king of Spain belonged to a genre known as casta paintings. This artistic category strived to catalogue the diverse populations living in the colonial world, and thus it can be argued that casta paintings suggest a visual descriptive taxonomy of it. The purpose of this paper is to analyze whether the paintings in Amat’s collection effectively and accurately reproduce the various racial groups of the New World at the end of the eighteenth century.
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Amat’s collection of paintings has provoked a lively debate over society’s structure. To be more precise, experts have argued over whether society at that time was based on class or race. Nonetheless, this category of paintings represents racial mixing within the scope of social control. According to researchers, casta paintings of this epoch display the desire and readiness of Spain to attain its authority (Earle 427).
The paintings intended to further this goal by reviewing the human power and environment of the Spanish Americas for the country’s economic benefit. Katzew stresses that the intensified concern in this type of painting is connected with a need for commercial expansion (148). She states that the classification of social race served as “a way of representing the unrepresentable; an attempt to quantify, and thus control, the fallibility of colonial social rigor” (Katzew 151). In this way, the primary intention of the country was to use this rigid social construct to pursue its economic purposes.
Interestingly, Amat’s collection of paintings vividly displays the multiplicity of racial groups that lived in the viceroyalty’s jurisdiction at that time. Nevertheless, the paintings also represent the fixation of Spaniards on racial genealogy. Indeed, they express the desire of the nobility to oppose the intrusion on their heritage and wealth through a rigid classification based on race (Katzew 151).
To be more precise, casta paintings assisted in forming the racial identity of the colonial population, displaying the results of racial mixing and the government’s attempt to manage miscegenation. The portrayals show the racial combinations that emerged from marriages between such races as Spaniards, Indians, Blacks, mulatos, and mestizos. Although the mixing of cultures was moderately fluid in the colonies at that time, it was still held to a rather stiff legal construct.
The paintings in Amat’s collection do effectively reproduce the racial groups of the New World at the end of the eighteenth century. These works of art, which depict miscegenated populations and colonial differences, intend to imply that the diverse population was effectively managed under the skillful leadership of the Spanish. The pictures show a father, a mother, and a child in their natural environment; importantly, the child is often seated between the two parents, implying that he or she is breaking the circular activity (Majluf).
Nonetheless, the way the family members lean towards each other and the abundance of physical contact signify that they are a uniform social entity in which everyone has his or her own place, which further carries the propagandistic message in New Spain. In other words, the racial stratifications in the colonial population did not hinder the establishment of unity between family members.
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It is crucial to emphasize that the Amat’s series has a strict order or representation determined by race. Notably, Spanish males were placed at the top of the hierarchy, while the further succession would display the moral degeneration of the colonial population. Afro-Mexicans or Negroes closed this devolution, which allowed the Spanish to form a hierarchy of authority and prestige. In that matter, it is significant to outline the pyramid of power as displayed by the series. The Spanish topped the series, after which came the indigenous people, followed by Africans who closed the stratification (Majluf). Apart from the levels of authority granted to representatives of various races, this hierarchy also evidences the color continuum of husbands who were most or least suitable for females.
In general, casta paintings emphasize that the child belongs to a different classification than the parents; they idealize interracial interactions and stratify races through poses, clothing, and other aspects to intensify the differences between them. Nonetheless, this official artistic representation of society is not accurate enough in terms of official categories of the colonial population (Hernández Cuevas 138). For instance, an Española could be called a mestiza or, if her appearance did not signify her race precisely, economic or social markers could serve to stratify the person. Thus, it can be stated that the official representation carried an inconsistent system of classification.
Cartographic imagery was an instrument used to distinguish the indigenous populations of the colonies. Nonetheless, although the applied terminology precisely specified the social groups of the Americas, it did not concentrate on differentiating between the native peoples. For example, the Spaniards disregarded the differences between creoles and indigenous peoples, which brought confusion to this form of stratification. Indeed, it became impossible to differentiate between Spaniards and Spaniards of American origin, which further complicated the racial organization. Apart from that, the term Indiano was used to refer to two dissimilar cultural groups as well.
This confusion resulted in the emergence of the term Criollo, which was initially used for slaves originating from the colonies and then was later applied to distinguish Spaniards inhabiting the colony from those residing there temporarily. The bewilderment brought a strong negative connotation to the term (Hernández Cuevas 125). The ambiguous use of terms pushed creoles to distinguish themselves from the native population and claim their supremacy.
Overall, it can be concluded that casta paintings encouraged a highly regulated imagery of the colonial space. This incentive was linked to the desire of the colonial elite to delineate themselves from the castas who posed a threat to their wealth. Although the paintings demonstrate aspects of colonial society, they are ineffective and inaccurate in representing the varied background of colonies, which resulted in growing confusion regarding social classification.
Earle, Rebecca. “The Pleasures of Taxonomy: Casta Paintings, Classification, and Colonialism.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 3, 2016, pp. 427-466.
Hernández Cuevas, Marco. “The Mexican Colonial Term “Chino” Is a Referent of Afrodescendant.” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 5, no. 5, 2012, pp. 124-143.
Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. Yale University Press, 2004.
Majluf, Natalia, editor. “Los Cuadros del Mestizaje del Virrey Amat: La Representación Etnográfica en el Perú Colonial.” 1999. Power Point presentation.