Teaching guide
Constructing identity in the Spanish colonies in America

Works that point to the complexities of racism in the colonial Americas

Francisco Clapera’s set of sixteen casta paintings (c. 1775) will be useful in the study of:

  • Social structures
  • Spanish colonial America
  • Race and ethnicity

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Discuss Francisco Clapera’s set of sixteen casta paintings as a set of primary documents that link to their specific historical context during the eighteenth century
  • Discuss the social and economic factors that underlay the creation of these paintings
  • Discuss how ideas of race can be related to ideas of social status
Francisco Clapera, set of sixteen casta paintings, c. 1775, 51.1 x 39.6 cm (Denver Art Museum)

Francisco Clapera, set of sixteen casta paintings, c. 1775, 51.1 x 39.6 cm (Denver Art Museum)

1. Look closely at the paintings

Look closely at Francisco Clapera’s set of sixteen casta paintings (zoomable images, also available for download for teaching)

Questions to ask:

  • Describe the paintings as a set, or have them describe a single painting. What seems to be the most important part of the paintings?
  • What details seem like they might be important?
  • What makes the paintings feel like a unified set?

2. Watch the video

The video “Casta paintings: constructing identity in Spanish colonial America” is only five and a half minutes long. Ideally, the video should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the video to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the painting that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and high resolution photographs with details of the sixteen casta paintings are provided to support the video.

3. Read about the paintings and their historical context

A vision of the “New World”

Casta paintings were primarily made for export from the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain to Spain and the rest of Europe. The first set of casta paintings made by Manuel Arellano in 1711 may have been commissioned for the viceroy of New Spain, who most likely would have brought them back to Spain with him when he returned from his tour of duty. Francisco Clapera is the only Spaniard known to have painted a casta series. He had been involved with the Art Academy in Madrid and was involved with the Art Academy in Mexico City as well. One possibility is that casta paintings were developed by painters in Mexico City in a bid to elevate their professional status as well as the status of painting in New Spain.

One of the things that the paintings show is the natural bounty of the Spanish colony, with fruits such as pineapple and papaya, and maize (seen in tortilla-making). They also show the perceived exoticism of the territory, with depictions of indigenous cuisine  (like the aforementioned tortillas, but also tamales and mole). The overall impression is of bounty, productivity, and for the most part, people in harmony within their families.

Race, class, and elite anxieties

The Viceroyalty of New Spain was populated by a number of groups, distinguished by race, ethnicity, and place of origin: the Spaniards born in Spain, along with creoles (Spaniards born in New Spain) were at the top of the social hierarchy, and had more educational and economic opportunities. There were also a large number of Indigenous people from varied ethnic groups, enslaved Africans who had been brought to New Spain, and free Africans and people of African descent. In New Spain, as opposed to Spain itself, there was much more social mobility, which made the elites nervous, and casta paintings may have served as a way for Spaniards to codify racial groups. By codifying the forms of racial mixing that took place in New Spain, the “pure-blooded” elites may have sought a form of control over the “dilution” of pure Spanish blood.

Earlier Spanish concerns with “purity of blood” revolved around the Reconquest (Reconquista) of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim rule. After the final victory at Granada, the Spanish crown ordered the expulsion of all Muslims and Jews who refused to convert. However, those who converted and stayed were looked upon with suspicion, and these “New Christians” were suspected of secretly keeping their old faiths. “Purity of blood” was a term that referred to proving one’s lineage to be Old Christian rather than a new convert, and became tied to ideas of class within Spain, often enforced by laws and regulations that required proof of lineage to participate in military orders, guilds, and other organizations.

Jews and Muslims were prohibited from emigrating to the Spanish colonies (though some did anyway), and Spanish anxieties about lineage and Christianity were transferred to the Indigenous and African groups who were likewise newly converted Christians. While skin color was a part of how racial others were perceived, their relationship to Christianity was also a factor in their social standing. The reality of race in New Spain was much more fluid than how it is shown in the casta paintings, and the definition of social classes and professions was not as rigidly defined either. This made those at the top — the Spaniards and creoles — nervous, as their position at the top of the social hierarchy (with the exception of people in top government posts) was not guaranteed.

4. Discussion questions

  1. 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?
  2. While the casta paintings are about race, they can also tell us something about gender. What do the paintings seem to assume about the roles of men and women in New Spain’s society?

5. Research questions

  1. Compare the casta series painted by Miguel Cabrera with Francisco Clapera’s. What elements are similar, and what are different? How does Cabrera depict the themes of  abundance and exoticism in seen in the Clapera paintings?
  2. Compare the genre of costumbrismo with casta paintings. Select one costumbrismo and one casta painting and compare them. What do they have in common? How are they different? Do they say similar things about race and class, or do they have different messages?

6. Bibliography

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

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.