Casta Paintings in Colonial Mexico: How Accurate Were They?

Mexican casta paintings seem to imply a rigid colonial hierarchy based on race. But what was the truth of the situation?

Feb 24, 2024By Greg Pasciuto, BA History
casta paintings mexican art


Each panel in Francisco Clapera’s collection of casta (Spanish for “lineage”) paintings depicts a unique scene. In one, a child pulls on his mother’s skirt while she struggles with her husband. In another, a Spanish father and his African wife play with their young son. Yet another depicts an Indigenous family in front of pots of soup and stew; the father is drinking heavily.


What unites all sixteen of Clapera’s paintings? They all depict families carrying out daily tasks. Even more importantly, they all contain a Spanish-language caption describing multiracial marriages. That is the crucial feature of casta paintings in colonial Mexico. Yet how accurate were they? Did they have a darker purpose than it might first appear?


A Historical Background for Casta Paintings

biombo early mexico city
Biombo with the Conquest of Mexico and View of Mexico City, late 17th century, via Sotheby’s


Casta paintings arose as a direct consequence of Spain’s conquest of Mesoamerica. By the end of the 16th century, the entire region had fallen under Spanish control. Almost immediately, the Spanish conquistadores went about imposing their culture. Mesoamerica became the Viceroyalty of New Spain, with its headquarters located on top of the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City).


In colonizing Mexico, Spanish authorities had to contend with astounding demographic diversity. Indigenous Mexican ethnic groups, while initially devastated by newly introduced diseases, saw their numbers start to recover as the centuries passed. Africans, both enslaved and free, also called New Spain home. It wasn’t long before these demographic groups started to mingle with each other. Interethnic marriages exploded, and so did the number of multiracial children.


casta painting brooklyn museum
From Spanish and Indian, Mestizo, early 18th century, via Brooklyn Museum

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Interethnic unions occurred all throughout the three hundred years of Spanish colonialism. Colonial Mexican observers appear to have more readily acknowledged interethnic marriages and children than their English counterparts in North America. However, this didn’t mean that authorities condoned these unions. Racist currents of thought still blanketed the era, and Spain was no exception to this rule.


Concurrently with the Enlightenment of the 18th century, Spanish elites in both Europe and colonial Mexico turned their attention towards racial differences. Painters and their patrons sought to categorize people into racialized groups with distinct labels. It was in this period, specifically, that casta paintings really took off in popularity.


Themes of Casta Paintings

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Virgin of Guadalupe and Castas, a rare example of an openly religious casta painting, by Luis de Mena, c. 1750, via Wikimedia Commons


Before the 1700s, much European and colonial Mexican painting was either religious or historical in nature. Artists might depict large battles from the past or illuminate important scenes from the Bible. Others focused on portraits of prominent individuals. The 18th century witnessed the growth of secular topics in artwork. Most surviving casta paintings depict secular themes. Explicitly religious casta paintings seem to have been uncommon, although many do include elements of Catholic devotion in their scenery.


Racial admixture was at the forefront of the entire casta painting genre. Spanish thinkers devised particular terms for the children of any kind of interethnic marriage. A child of a Spaniard and a Native Mexican or African, for instance, would be termed a mestizo/mestiza or a mulato/mulata, respectively. Children of two multiracial parents would receive even more specific ethnic names (ex.: a child of a mestizo/mestiza and a Spaniard was a castizo/castiza). Artists went to painstaking lengths to document any and all multiethnic children they could think of. The most famous casta paintings consist of sixteen panels, each one portraying a particular interracial marriage.


spaniard albina marriage
From Spaniard and Albino Woman, Return Backwards, by Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, c. 1760, via Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Scenes in casta paintings were both ordinary and elaborate. They focused primarily on families going about their ordinary routines or on life in cities. Children might be aiding their parents with chores, such as cooking or carrying baskets of food. In others, they are visibly misbehaving, to the frustration of their parents.


Men are usually shown in positions of authority. Women are often situated close to the children, either caring for them or instructing them. Families either wear elaborate or simple clothing. People of Spanish ancestry are typically clad in elegant clothes and occupy the first panels of the painting. This signifies their status at the apex of colonial society in New Spain.


The styles of casta paintings did change over time. According to art historian Ilona Katzew, earlier works heavily depicted opulent clothing and other abundant material goods (Katzew, 2004). This was regardless of the ethnic background of the painted figures. In the second half of the 18th century, casta painters started to focus more on the behavior of their figures. With Africans and Native Mexicans often depicted engaging in social vices, the paintings reinforced colonial stereotypes of non-Europeans under Spanish rule.


Who Were Some of the Painters?

casta painting albino miguel cabrera
From Spanish and Morisca, Albina, by Miguel Cabrera, 1763, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


The artists behind most surviving casta paintings are unknown. This could be due to purposeful anonymity, missing records, or misinterpretations of the works themselves. That being said, we do know the names of some casta painters. Among their ranks were some of New Spain’s most prominent artists.


Miguel Cabrera is among the most illustrious Mexican painters of the colonial era. Born around 1695, he specialized in religious painting, both for wealthy patrons and the Catholic Church itself. However, he did create one set of casta paintings in 1763. The series follows the usual sixteen-panel format of the casta genre and draws attention to the clothing of the painted figures. The paintings were actually lost for centuries until a San Francisco resident found them underneath her couch in 2015!


ignacio maria barreda casta painting
Casta painting set, by Ignacio María Barreda y Ordóñez, 1777, via Vistas Gallery at Fordham University


Another Mexican casta painter was Ignacio María Barreda y Ordóñez, who completed the work above in February 1777. Details about Barreda’s life are sparse, but his painting is unique. The bottom of the painting contains his name and the precise date of its creation. His style very much aligns with later casta paintings; the Spanish figures occupy the top of the painting’s hierarchy. By contrast, people of African ancestry occupy the lowest level. Interestingly, he also includes a specific, semi-nomadic Indigenous Mexican group beneath the sixteen castas. This signifies their existence outside Barreda’s view of “civilized” society.


Other casta painters also achieved great fame, such as Juan Rodríguez Juárez during the first half of the 18th century. However, due to spacing limitations, we cannot delve into all casta masters here. Further study of these artists is welcome.


Who Was the Intended Audience?

charles iii spain
Charles III, King of Spain between 1759 and 1788, by Anton Rafael Mengs, c. 1765, via Museo del Prado


Ownership of casta paintings was generally the domain of the wealthy. The most famous casta works were commissioned with the intention of sending them back to Spain. There, they would serve as illustrations of the unique living conditions and material abundance of Mesoamerica.


A local market among Mexican-born officials also seems to have existed. Professor Susan Deans-Smith of the University of Texas at Austin suggests that even mid-level bureaucrats may have paid for casta paintings during the 18th century. A few sets even ended up in other countries like Great Britain, but how that happened isn’t entirely clear.


One of the driving factors behind the creation of casta paintings was the emergence of a sense of Mexican identity among the wealthy American-born Spanish. By the start of the 18th century, many of these Criollos exalted their homeland over Europe. They felt ignored by Spanish-born elites and wanted to prove their wealth and importance through artwork. In doing so, they echoed back to the old notion of limpieza de sangre (blood purity). The Criollos asserted that they were the superior residents of colonial Mexico, as opposed to the Indigenous and African “other.”


Did Colonial Mexico Have a Caste System?

caste system india britannica
Traditional breakdown of the Indian caste system, via Encyclopedia Britannica


Given all that we have learned so far, let’s turn to the glaring issue in the room at last. The Spanish word casta was the forefather of the English word caste. Does this mean that colonial Mexican society operated under a caste system, similar to that of India?


In India, caste was based on a person’s status at birth. That status would determine which jobs they could do, who they could marry, and where they could live. Based on our examination of casta paintings in Mexico, was this the case here as well?


Not in the same sense. The words casta and caste may be intimately related, but they are not entirely analogous. Mexican casta paintings definitely depict a racialized hierarchy, with ethnic Spaniards at the top, followed by Native Mexicans and then Africans. Still, interethnic marriages were so common in colonial Mexico that authorities could not police them everywhere.


mestizo couple casta painting
From Spaniard and Castiza, turns into Spaniard, via Blanton Museum of Art


More than anything, what casta paintings illustrate is an idealized, elitist vision of colonial life in Mexico. Wealthy Criollos wanted to prove their wealth and blood purity through art, so they latched onto Europe’s fixation on “exotic” subjects for their own gain. Ironically, while the Criollos felt condescended to by European-born Spaniards, they acted the same way towards non-European members of colonial society. Casta paintings changed as a genre over time, but they always spoke to an almost propagandistic idea of colonial Mexico as a land of riches and ethnic confusion.


After Mexican Independence in 1821, casta paintings fell out of style. Mexicans went about fashioning a new nation for themselves, free from the constraints of Spanish domination. However, the Mexican people’s complex history with race and ethnicity would evidently outlast colonialism by centuries. Modern Mexico has just recently started to acknowledge the contributions of non-Indigenous and non-European individuals in its history.


Conclusion: How Accurate Were Casta Paintings?

francisco clapera casta paintings
Panels from a set of sixteen casta paintings, by Francisco Clapera, c. 1775, via Smarthistory


Casta paintings are intriguing works of art. They offer insight into the complex, multiracial reality of colonial Mexican life, as well as the minds of their painters and the patrons who commissioned them. The artistic skill put into them also belies their more sinister purpose of upholding social inequality in the Spanish empire.


Ultimately, casta paintings were most accurate in their depictions of elite social attitudes and the intellectual currents of the times. They can be seen as the offspring of long-held Spanish notions of blood purity and a sense of Mexican proto-nationalism. Enforcing a rigid, racialized social order just wasn’t possible for Spanish authorities. Colonial Mexico was absolutely a hierarchical society, but the evidence isn’t strong enough to suggest a rigid caste system as we would now know it.


Bibliography/Further Reading


Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

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By Greg PasciutoBA HistoryGreg is a Stonehill College graduate and aspiring writer and editor from Boston, MA. When he isn’t working his full-time job, you might find him reading, completing creative word searches, or just looking to learn new skills for life. His historical interests are particularly centered on the history of religion and the interactions of different cultural groups. Not limited to a single geographic region, Greg enjoys uncovering the stories of cultures all around.