In 1763, the highly regarded Mexican painter Miguel Cabrera (c. 1715–1768) created sixteen paintings of castas (castes) in the New World. Signed by the artist on the first and the sixteenth canvas “Mich. Cabrera pinxit, Mexici, Anno 1763,” the set surfaced in Spain in the twentieth century, and is now divided among various locations.1 It seems that the artist painted only one set of castas, but it is an extraordinary and visually remarkable group. Even though the genre had been developing for approximately a half-century, Cabrera’s sixteen compositions are original and packed with items such as apparel to describe race and social status.2
Two missing paintings from Cabrera’s set of castas recently came to light in California, one of which was acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2014. The painting, 6. From Spaniard and Morisca, Albino Girl, is exceptional (Figure 1). Since the set was no doubt destined for Spain, the individual works were treated as scrolls, fitted with polychrome wood spindles and cornices for rolling and hanging—a common convention for transporting paintings across vast distances—and this is the only painting from the set that retains its original format (Figure 2).3 Furthermore, because the painting was rolled and stored in a box for many years, the colors have not faded, and the surface of the main subject has not been too affected by atmospheric conditions or repeated cleanings.4
The purpose of this article is not to report on a conservation treatment or on the findings of a scientific examination, but rather to put forward insights on the painter Miguel Cabrera as a creative artist influenced by his personality, about which little is known. Despite Cabrera’s fame, his origin and background are not well documented. Given the quantity of his production, it is thought that he had a large studio, but there is little information about the roles of his assistants or how the workshop functioned (which is also the case for many European studios). That said, the recent examination and restoration of the painting provided both facts and clues. Its nearly untouched condition, coupled with the fact that the attribution is secure, makes it an important document for understanding other paintings by the artist. In other words, it serves as a record not only of the original appearance of Cabrera’s casta set, but also of many of his other paintings. Since it preserves in an unadulterated state the artist’s procedures and choice of materials, it exemplifies Cabrera’s thoughts and decisions as he worked out the composition and colors. It reveals the artist’s abilities, his strengths and weaknesses.
Considering that Cabrera’s entire set has survived, and given the optimal condition of this particular painting, we can conclude that great care and attention was invested in its creation. Beginning with the choice of textile for the support, the canvas preparer must have known exactly how to prime paintings so that they could be rolled for shipping. In El museo pictórico y escala óptica (1715–24), the Spanish artist and treatise writer Antonio Palomino lamented that paintings by José de Ribera were improperly prepared; their “preparation layers” were so thick and hard that they could not be safely rolled.5 This opens up the question of who prepared Cabrera’s canvases. Although there were canvas primer specialists in Madrid, one can assume that Cabrera was well acquainted with the steps required for this process, or at the very least knew whom to entrust with this task.
The painting’s support, a plainly woven linen that is heavy and coarse, was covered with a white preparation, likely a gesso ground. On top of the gesso, a red layer, much thinner and finer than the white layer, contains predominantly ocher and lead pigments, presumably bound in oil. While the paint and priming layers have developed some large cracks, which exhibit modest lifting, it is the absence of even more cracks and more lifting that seems surprising. The choice of canvas, its inherent strength, must be at least partially responsible for this phenomenon.
The top and bottom of the canvas have tacking margins that are free of paint or any kind of preparation. A spindle was tacked to the bottom margin and a cornice was tacked to the margin on the top. Although the spindle is not very heavy, it could act as a weight to hold the picture flat, although there were almost certainly undulations and curling of the edges once it was unrolled and displayed. The two colorful wood pieces are surely original to the painting. Their attractive shape and polychromy were clearly designed to enhance the painting’s presentation; in this regard, it should be noted that the pigments in the polychromy are consistent with those in the painting. Because similar spindles and cornices have been recorded on other casta paintings from the set, it is tempting to think that Cabrera had a hand in their appearance and production.
It is remarkable that the painting was unrolled with little difficulty following its rediscovery. After living as a less-than-ten-inch-wide roll for some years, it had only moderate deformations and raised cracks, which could be minimized with noninvasive treatments. The combined layers of the preparation and paint on the canvas remained relatively flexible, due in part to the thinness of the layers and possibly to the choice of canvas. One wonders, therefore, if Cabrera himself was particularly sensitive to the stresses of rolling a painting. He must have been determined that the paintings should arrive in Spain in good condition, not compromised in any way, particularly considering that many of his works were exported outside of Mexico City.6 That Cabrera’s workmanship is faultless also suggests that he was the type of painter who was involved from beginning to finish in the creation of an artwork—at least those he considered important commissions.
It is most likely that the canvas support was mounted on a framework such as a wood strainer for painting, which would mean that the sides of the canvas also had tacking margins in the beginning. Although the sides were trimmed when the painting was completed, it is still possible to detect slivers of unpainted canvas in a number of places at the edges. In addition, partial tack holes appear at the very edges of the scroll.7 Since the X-ray revealed cusping on all sides of the canvas, it would have been stretched from all sides as early as the priming stage. The thin strip of grayed material that runs along the vertical edges of the scroll appears to be some type of adhesive, probably intended to adhere a flexible decorative border such as a ribbon, a final touch to complete the ensemble.
By the time Cabrera painted his set in 1763, the casta genre had been popular in Mexico for more than fifty years. The first sets date to the early eighteenth century. As Ilona Katzew has shown in her classic book dedicated to the subject, these paintings drew on a wide range of sources but were fundamentally a new invention created to document the various socioracial groups of the colony.8 That is to say, there were no direct models to follow as there were for religious paintings. To create these works, Cabrera designed a tight composition with saturated, elementary colors and a solid structure that calls the viewer’s attention to the various details associated with the figures’ socioracial status.
The subject of the painting in question is a family group: three figures in attractive dress. The father, a Spaniard, wears a soldier’s uniform; the mother, a morisca (the combination of a Spanish man and a mulatto woman), wears a white blouse covered with a rebozo (shawl) with metallic threads and a white skirt printed with designs.9 On the left side of the picture, the father is seated in three-quarter view, his wide-brimmed hat on his knee, with his upper right leg stretched across a wooden table on which his gun (a trabuco) and cigarettes are placed. On the right, his wife stands with her body in three-quarter view and her head in strict profile, facing to the left, looking down to their daughter. In the center, the child, who wears a green skirt with a white blouse and blue shoes and red socks, is being passed from mother to father.
The composition of this painting is a triangle with the parents as the slanted sides. Numerous smaller triangles and diagonals divide and organize the details. The diagonals include an X that could be drawn from one corner of the painting to the other, following forms such as the slant of the hat through the upper arm of the father, or along the father’s forearm and the mother’s straight arm. Geometrical divisions such as these make it possible to see the painting as a unified whole, yet encourage the eye to travel around and take in all the details.
Although infrared photography detected no underdrawing, thin brown paint that is visible along some forms, for example in the father’s face, fixed the composition on the priming. The brown remains visible, though covered with thin layers of paint, to extend shades and create deep shadows. The composition was planned with the brown sketch on the red preparatory layer, and the thick paint laid on top concealed the artist’s creative process as he struggled to place the figures and include all of the details.
While the X-ray revealed numerous changes, it is the repositioning of the mother’s head that holds the greatest compositional and emotional significance. As the X-ray shows, the mother’s face was at one time closer to her child, and she was looking more downward than she is in the final picture (Figure 3). When planning the composition, therefore, Cabrera likely intended the family portrait to be more intimate. In the final version he made the mother seem more distant or removed, a sense further emphasized by depicting her head in profile. The X-ray also revealed a buildup of paint at the back of the mother’s head. This suggests that when he pulled her back from the family group, he experimented with placing her head even farther to the right.
This raises the question of why Cabrera had misgivings about the morisca, and if at one time he also intended to paint her head in three-quarters to relate it more closely to the other two figures. Infrared produced another clue to the head’s various positions. Although the dense flesh paint cannot be penetrated, the infrared photograph shows an outline for the back of her head that does not account for the fullness of her hair and the bun. Along with some vague lines that show in the X-ray, the earlier outline could have been for a head in three-quarters view, in which case the eyes would have looked down and slightly forward to the present position of the child’s head, which projects beyond the mother. In profile, however, the full hair with bun at the back of the morisca’s head would be visible. Since the artist had already painted the background around the three-quarters orientation, it was necessary to paint the hair and bun over the dried background paint. Over time, the brown paint of the hair became more transparent, causing the dark background to be visible through the hair, something that could have been prevented had the artist carefully scraped out the area before painting the hair.
Cabrera blended the flesh colors of the morisca’s face to a high finish, in contrast to the other two figures, which were executed with open brushwork. In doing so he dignified the figure of the morisca, which is further corroborated by her luxurious rebozo. Like other works from the set, Cabrera articulated the process of racial mixing where the dominant figure is the Spanish male, but through pictorial means and the addition of subtle details he called attention to subaltern figures. For example, in the first work of the set, which portrays the mix of a Spanish man and an Indian woman with their mestizo child, the Spanish man is actually turned away (his face hidden from view), highlighting the figure of the Indian woman.10
Cabrera employed primary and secondary colors and white, which are saturated and easily identifiable, to create organization and possibly to convey meaning. Through rather simple means, he also effectively conveyed the textures of the various materials he portrayed. The center of the composition is extraordinary for the concentration of colors, forms, details, and textures—velvet, lace, wool, soft white fabrics, leather, and the metallic and wool threads of the rebozo all converge. The trompe l’oeil shadow of the tassel on the mother’s dress and metal threader on the father’s coat provide information as to the location of the light source while producing a highly convincing visual effect.
The use and arrangement of colors in the painting seems scientific, based on color theory, and may hold symbolic overtones—both potentially fruitful avenues for future research. The skirt of the child is a saturated green, traditionally a mix of blue and yellow. This secondary color is surrounded by the primary colors, which are all worn by the father, the pure Spaniard. His bright red sleeve extends over the green skirt, his blue trousers form a horizontal line below the green skirt, and his yellowish buckskin coat is a vertical to the left of the green. The father’s cape, which is visible on the left edge and between the father and child, is purple, another secondary color. The albino girl wears a white blouse and is framed by the white sleeve of her mother and the white scarf of her father, which further accentuates her paleness.
While the primary and secondary colors for the father and child are solid expanses, the same colors were applied in swatches for the decorative patterns on the mother’s costume. The stripes in the rebozo are shades of pink and green on a yellow base, and the floral motifs on the white skirt are red, blue, green, and yellow. This choice not only creates an interesting visual contrast with the rest of the picture, but the juxtaposition of these patches of color seems to produce a range of different hues and tones from visual mixing. This suggests that Cabrera was attuned to treatises on color theory and how colors mix optically when placed next to one another.
A color that influenced the overall tonality of the painting is the bright red of the priming. A dark or red-brown preparation was popular among seventeenth-century Spanish painters.11 Artists often intended for a colored preparation to visually mix with thin surface paints, thereby extending the tonal range from light to dark. Cabrera took advantage of the colored preparation in the background when he applied thin layers of paint for the walls and in the shadows of the father’s head, for example. As oil paints age, the color of the priming usually becomes more apparent and affects the painting’s overall appearance.12 But here, because of the work’s excellent state of preservation and also since it has never been lined, the red ground has not seriously affected its appearance.
Cabrera’s application of paint followed traditional methods. Forms were laid in with a flat but graduated middle tone of local color (that is, the actual color of the object) that was worked up with highlights and glazes. The blue glaze that the artist applied over the blue middle tone of the pants leg is thinner where light falls directly on the fabric and thicker to represent the shadows of the deeper folds where light does not reach. Cabrera created the appearance of light catching the tops of the threads of fabrics such as the velvet with a few simple steps. After glazing the local color of the red sleeve with deep red, he painted highlights with long strokes of thick white (for the more intense highlights) or pink-colored paints, and he blurred the edges of the lights into the dark glaze. Finally, there is a barely noticeable white paint on the surface of the red-painted velvet that is not in shadow, to replicate light hitting the pile of the fabric. This superficial white must have been applied in a fairly dry state so that the brush deposited the color only on the crowns of the canvas weave. The father’s jacket also shows Cabrera’s ability to succinctly convey visual properties of a material. The broad fold in the jacket suggests the weight and strength of leather, and the holes for the cord show a thickness that might be associated with leather.
Many different pigments were available at this time, especially in Europe. Cabrera’s painting is bright and colorful, but the pigments are limited to lead white, vermillion, orpiment, carbon black, and Prussian blue or indigo (or perhaps both). No azurite or ultramarine were detected. The green is a mixture of blue pigments and ocher and orpiment, but no copper resinate was identified. The question, then, is whether the lack of other pigments was the result of the artist’s own choice, the available budget, or commercial availability; that last seems highly unlikely given the fluid connections between New Spain and Europe.13 Although organic colorants are most definitely present, further analysis is required to properly identify them.14
For the most part, the colors are simple mixtures of a few pigments rather than results of complicated mixing or layering of different colors. The color of the red sleeve is from vermillion, and a red lake and the blue of the trouser leg is from Prussian blue and/or indigo, essentially.15 An exception is the deep purple color of the father’s cape visible below his red sleeve. This hue was generated from a thin layer of compacted fine dark pigment (perhaps carbon black) mixed with scattered red particles, likely cochineal, that sits on the red priming substrate, which also contributes to the color. The paint in the inscription is a mixture of lead white and orpiment, which may sparkle or glisten to some degree to seem slightly metallic.
There is little variety or flourish to the brushwork. The white skirt was painted with a wide brush in vertical strokes, and when the white paint was firm enough the artist painted the floral designs on top. He then used a pointed tool to scrape details—which are delightful, almost childlike—into the colored paints of the flowers. The lace is finely painted with repeated designs, each slightly different from the next. In some parts of the lace worn by the child, there are tiny applications of white that almost look as though paint was applied through a mesh.
The numerous changes to the composition discovered via X-ray contribute to the understanding of the artist’s process. In some cases, one could argue, the first version of a form was more successful than the final version. For example, the artist initially painted the child’s feet on the priming slightly above and to the right of where each foot appears in the final painting. Yet in the X-ray, the abandoned versions, which are only schematic, appear more three-dimensional than the final versions. For example, the child’s right foot and leg seem to recede thanks to the arc from the shin to the toe of the shoe (Figure 4). In the finished painting, the shin is an almost straight line and the top of the shoe is flat, not foreshortened. The first version of the girl’s lower left leg is also foreshortened. These examples demonstrate that Cabrera was perfectly capable of rendering more realistic proportions, but that he intended here to produce something flatter and less volumetric.
Another example that reinforces this point is the mother’s hand. The image in the X-ray demonstrates that Cabrera understood the structure of the hand, which is precisely sketched, including the knuckles. However, the completed hand appears rounded and soft, which was perhaps intended to accentuate the scene’s tenderness. In addition, the X-ray shows how the child’s head appeared to occupy space in a convincing three-quarter view, while in the final version the face was made wider and somewhat flat. Although the father’s head was obviously intended to be in front of the child’s, in fact his cigarette was painted on top of the child’s hair in the finished painting, and the heads appear nearly side by side.
Numerous changes in the lower center of the painting are visible in the X-ray. The artist was obviously struggling to accommodate as much detail as possible. One change that created a chain reaction was the lowering of the right side of the wide-brimmed hat by about three inches. In its final position, the hat has a dramatic slant, which puts it on axis with the large compositional X mentioned earlier. The artist lowered the child’s right foot into the vacated space where it could be seen in its entirety, whereas before it would have been partially hidden by the hat. Similarly, the decorative motif of the urn with three flowers on the mother’s skirt, located directly below the child’s feet, was painted in full once the hat brim was relocated.
The other fifteen paintings in the set have distinct backgrounds such as walls, vistas, and various paraphernalia, whereas the background of this sixth painting appears plain. While the horizontal mortar joints in the stone wall at the vertical center are clearly visible, on the left, only a few joints are faintly perceptible. Fortunately, the X-ray revealed lines on the left side that appear to be mortar joints for a wall that is perpendicular to the central wall (Figure 5). This design relates to the architectural setting in some of the other works. For example, in 7. From Spaniard and Albino, Return-Backwards, several walls made of stone and mortar make up the background, along with an opening with a parrot and a vista at the upper right. The mortar lines in the dark wall on the left, also only faint, appear to run at an angle from the central wall, which has horizontal mortar joints. Similarly, a vista, although dark, also exists at the upper right of 6. From Spaniard and Morisca, Albino Girl. The area has a faint bluish hue and in a cross section from the area, a single layer of paint on top of the red preparation appears translucent gray-blue with a few distinguishable yellow particles.
The visual appraisal of the painting shows that Cabrera was a highly skillful technician who was deeply invested in the process of making a painting, from preparing the canvas to sketching and planning the composition. While he could have created a more three-dimensional representation of his subject, he flattened forms to some degree and compressed space, and we know that this was deliberate. He also minimized the treatment of the surface rather than focusing on subtle modeling with various hues and tones. The gun in the foreground exemplifies his ability to represent an object with all of its details in a direct way, yet without a lot of effort to articulate the subtle variations of the metal or the wood.
Cabrera composed this painting as a well-organized map, filled with visual information. The primary and secondary colors and painted patterns and textures were no doubt carefully conceived to ensure that we would notice and appreciate the various details of material culture he included—much of it surely novel for its European audience. Further, through his astute use of colors, Cabrera called attention to the white pigmentation of the albino girl, in the end the main focus of the picture devoted to articulating the various racial permutations of the colony. This suggests that Cabrera used pigments symbolically—a compelling aspect of his work that would surely benefit from further research.