Written by the Viceroy of Perú, this letter entrusts the Marqués of Arcohermoso with a shipment of cargo on its way from Lima to Spain. This shipment included twenty casta paintings, which showed varieties of mixing possible between different "castes" or social and ethnic groups.

Today, many of the casta paintings made in Spanish America are in European collections, and this rare document actually details how one set arrived there. But more importantly, it offers insight into how at least one patron interpreted them. For the Viceroy offers them as works fit for a gavinete—a room devoted to wondrous and curious things from around the globe. In gavinetes one could find "curious" pre–Columbian artworks as well as objects found in nature. In Spain, the royal gavinete grew into a natural history museum. The Viceroy clearly suggests that casta paintings are to be considered as specimens of the scientific knowledge—in this case about the effects of human intermixing—that Spanish America could offer Spain.
Visual Culture
Casta paintings are a remarkable phenomenon of the 18th century. While most of the known examples come from New Spain, including the two that appear in the Vistas gallery, they were also created in the Viceregency of Perú. Each canvas typically contained sixteen groups. Each panel showed a family—with mother, father, and child—as if to document the ethnic types that would result from the mixing of Spaniards, Indians and Africans in Spanish America. Since many casta paintings are now in European collections, art historians see them as products of Spanish America that were often shipped back to Spain in colonial times.

The strict typology of mixing displayed in casta paintings seems to be far more elaborate than historical documents of the period. Terms like saltatras ("throwback") or teinte en el aire ("up in the air") appear in paintings, yet they are not found in parish registers, census records or written descriptions. The neat classifications of casta paintings thus portray thoughts and beliefs about ethnicity, but they do not describe lived experience in any straightforward way.

See a casta painting from New Spain in the Vistas Gallery.

Library > 16th Century    > 17th Century    > 18th Century