Francisco Clapera, set of sixteen casta paintings

Francisco Clapera, Set of Sixteen Casta paintings, c. 1775, 51.1 x 39.6 cm (Denver Art Museum). Speakers: Sabina Kull, Meyer Center Fellow, Denver Art Museum and Beth Harris.

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Key points

  • New Spain was a viceroyalty of the Spanish empire. The presence of people of many different ethnic backgrounds and their relative social mobility in New Spain prompted Spanish anxiety about racial mixing and a desire to maintain social hierarchies that privileged European lineage.
  • Casta paintings used labels and visual details such as different skin tones, dress, occupations, and settings to distinguish ethnicity and to signal economic and class divisions. These images did not reflect reality so much as represent stereotypes arranged along a biased, hierarchical scale.
  • Francisco Clapera was involved in the founding of an art academy in New Spain. It is likely that many casta paintings were produced for export back to Spain, as part of an effort by artists in the viceroyalty to demonstrate their skill and sophistication, as well as the wealth and productivity of New Spain.

Go deeper

Learn more about this painting at the Denver Art Museum

See another example of a set of Casta paintings

What was a viceroyalty?

How did the Manila Galleon Trade influence local culture in the Americas?

How was ethnicity thought about in New Spain?

What are some examples of upper-class Spanish-American portraiture?

How did ethnic and social divisions intersect with the production of art in New Spain?

Another set of Casta paintings, recently acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Defining Mestizaje and the Nature of History from Unsettling Journeys

More to think about

Casta paintings depicted stereotypes about race and social class in New Spain. How do we, today, perpetuate stereotypes about race, class, and identity in the United States?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”DenverCasta,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:02] We’re here in the Denver Art Museum, looking at a set of casta paintings by an artist named Francisco Clapera. It’s the only complete set of casta paintings in the United States. There are normally 16, but today in the galleries, only 14 are up. 2 are being incorporated into the work of a contemporary Latino artist.

[0:28] It shows the interest in these paintings by artists and by the public. These are fascinating images to us today. Let’s talk about what we’re seeing.

[0:37] What we’re looking at is a series of images that describe what was seen as racial mixing in New Spain.

Sabina Kull: [0:46] They were produced in Mexico, which was a colony or viceroyalty of Spain, ruled by a viceroy who was a stand-in for the Spanish king.

Dr. Harris: [0:55] We have to remember that in New Spain there were Spanish people who were born in the Americas, there were Spanish people who emigrated to the Americas, and there were Indigenous people. But there were also Africans who were brought to New Spain as slaves.

[1:08] There was a hierarchy. People who were Spanish-born, or creole, were at the top of that hierarchy. They had many more economic and educational opportunities than at the bottom of that hierarchy. They intermarried, they had children, and there was a racial mixing that caused anxiety.

Sabina: [1:28] In the Spanish colonies in America, there was more of an ability for the lesser nobility, for even people of the lower classes, to change their position, to redefine themselves as higher class. In part, this probably caused anxiety for the Spaniards and the creoles. It seems like the casta paintings are in part a way to codify these racial groups.

Dr. Harris: [1:52] Typically for Casta paintings, we see a label at the bottom that explains what we’re seeing.

Sabina: [1:58] In this first painting, the inscription tells us “De Español e India, nace Mestiza,” which means “From a Spanish father and an Indian woman comes a mestiza child.”

Dr. Harris: [2:11] We can tell he’s Spanish by his European clothing, that three-part hat. In fact, he looks like an official of some sort. We’re looking at a member of the Spanish elite. Similarly, we can tell from the woman that she’s Indigenous by her clothing.

Sabina: [2:28] In this painting, you can see that there’s various fruits that were native to the Americas. For instance, there’s pineapple, and it looks like perhaps papaya. In the second painting we have a Spanish man and a castiza woman, and their child then is Spanish.

[2:43] As we move through the series, people are depicted in occupations. They’re working. There’s less leisure activities, although things vary from set to set.

Dr. Harris: [2:54] Laborers are associated with people lower down in that hierarchy, people of more mixed race, so to speak.

Sabina: [3:01] Race was a fluid category. It wasn’t necessarily as strict as these casta paintings depict it to be. From what we know, many if not most casta paintings were produced for export for Spain, for Spanish as well as broader European viewers.

[3:18] There’s evidence that the first set of casta paintings produced in 1711 might have been commissioned for the viceroy of New Spain. Most likely, he would have brought that set of casta paintings back to Spain with him when he returned.

Dr. Harris: [3:32] We have to ask, what was their motivation in commissioning these?

Sabina: [3:37] On the one hand, a lot of the casta paintings showing these products of the Americas and these commodities, they’re depicting New Spain as this land of boundless natural wonders.

[3:48] In that sense, they do seem to be showing a sense of pride that the residents of New Spain, including the creoles, may have had for their home. On the other hand, Spanish viewers also might be seeing more exotic depiction of New Spain.

Dr. Harris: [4:03] We see, for example, a woman who’s making tortillas. We see someone making tamales. We see mole and meat being prepared, this interest in the exotic food of New Spain.

Sabina: [4:18] We also see New Spain as this crossroads between Asia and Spain; in particular, painting number 14, where we see this blue-and-white porcelain that was potentially made in Asia and then traveled on the Manila galleons through New Spain.

Dr. Harris: [4:35] The bounty of New Spain through the fruits and vegetables, the productivity of the people of New Spain, in the things that they labored to produce, we have a sense of harmony, for the most part, in family relationships.

Sabina: [4:50] We know that Clapera was born in Spain. He was a member of the art academy in Madrid and then was involved in the art academy in Mexico City. More recent research is indicating that the genre of casta painting might have been developed by painters in Mexico City who are involved with a bid to elevate the status of painting as well as their own professional status.

Dr. Harris: [5:14] We should say, too, that these paintings are being discussed by art historians. We’re still working on researching them and interpreting them. It’s interesting to think about what we might learn about them in the future.

[5:26] [music]

Cite this page as: Julie Wilson Frick, Denver Art Museum, Sabena Kull and Dr. Beth Harris, "Francisco Clapera, set of sixteen casta paintings," in Smarthistory, September 12, 2020, accessed May 28, 2024,