The Art of Conversation: Eighteenth-Century Mexican Casta Painting

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Traditionally, casta paintings have been interpreted as an isolated colonial Mexican art form and examined within the social historical moment in which they emerged. Casta paintings visually represented the miscegenation of the Spanish, Indian and Black African populations that constituted the new world and embraced a diverse terminology to demarcate the land’s mixed races. Racial mixing challenged established social and racial categories,and casta paintings sought to stabilize issues of race, gender and social status that were present in colonial Mexico.

Concurrently, halfway across the world, another country’s artists were striving to find the visual vocabulary to represent its families, socio-economic class and genealogical lineage. I am referring to England and its eighteenth-century conversation pictures. Like casta paintings, English conversation pieces articulate beliefs about social and familial propriety. It is through the family unit and the presence of a child that a genealogical statement is made and an effigy is preserved for subsequent generations. Utilizing both invention and mimesis, artists of both genres emphasize costume and accessories in order to cater to particular stereotypes.

I read casta paintings as conversations like their European counterparts—both internal conversations among the figures within the frame, and external ones between the figures, the artist and the beholder. It is my position that both casta paintings and conversation pieces demonstrate a similar concern with the construction of a particular self-image in the midst of societies that were apprehensive about the varying conflicting notions of socio-familial and socio-racial categories.


Originally published in Shift: Graduate Journal of Visual and Material Culture: http://shiftjournal.org/project/issue-5.