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LACMA purchases long-lost masterpiece, once kept under a couch

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic
Once stored under a couch, a long-lost masterpiece by Mexican painter Miguel Cabrera resurfaces

Lots of people have a stray fuzz ball or two kicking around under the sofa, or perhaps a missing sock to match the lonely one at the bottom of the laundry hamper.

Christina Jones Janssen had something more valuable under the couch in her Bay Area home — a lost and extremely rare masterpiece of 18th century painting, neatly rolled up and remarkably well-preserved.

She suspected it might be important, and her sleuthing led to what art experts are calling one of the most important discoveries of Mexican Colonial art in recent memory.

The picture is a long-lost work by Miguel Cabrera (circa 1715-1768), the greatest painter of his era in Mexico City, capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. His prolific workshop produced religious and secular art for the Catholic Church and the social elite.

Over the course of nearly 250 years, the painting traveled more than 12,000 miles, including a trip back and forth across the Atlantic. Its whereabouts have long been unknown.

Now the picture has arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which scored an impressive coup in acquiring the missing masterpiece. Its rediscovery is a major art historical event.

The painting is the sixth in a distinctive set of 16 casta paintings — a controversial but fascinating genre invented in Mexico. In a system devised by white elites, castas explore the Enlightenment Age theme of miscegenation, or interracial marriage, among Indians, Spaniards and Africans. About 100 sets are known, although most have been broken up.

Cabrera painted only one set, widely considered the genre's finest.

The painting shows a prosperous Spanish father and doting Moorish North African (or Morisca) mother dandling their cheerful albino baby. The figures are life-size. It's the third and largest casta in LACMA's collection that represents this ethnic combination.

Eight paintings from the full set of 16 are in Madrid's Museo de América, the finest collection of Spanish Colonial and pre-Conquest art in Europe. Five are in a private collection in Monterrey, Mexico, and one is in the Multi-Cultural Music and Art Foundation of Northridge.

Until now, the set's two remaining pictures have been missing (one of the series is still lost). LACMA purchased the newly found masterpiece for an undisclosed sum, with funds provided by trustee Kelvin Davis and as a partial gift from Janssen, its owner.

Janssen said she finally began to research the painting's provenance after retiring as a corporate attorney with Chevron last year.

"My dad always told me it was old and probably from Spain," Janssen told The Times on Tuesday. "He thought it had some mates there. He wanted me to look into it some day."

She had no idea just how important the legacy would turn out to be. Her research led her to Magali Carrera, an art historian at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, who identified the painter.

"I didn't even know what a casta was," Janssen said. "But my father always said it belonged in a museum."

A museum in Los Angeles, itself once part of New Spain, was a logical choice, given family history. Her great-great-grandfather, mining tycoon John P. Jones, co-founded Santa Monica.

Ilona Katzew, LACMA curator of Latin American art and a leading casta scholar, called it "easily the most important Mexican Colonial painting to come to market in years."

Interest in Spanish Colonial art has risen sharply in recent decades. A work of this caliber would be expected to bring at least $1 million at auction, Katzew said.

Cabrera's inventive castas are hanging scrolls, a format common to Asian art but virtually unknown in Europe and the Americas until the Manila Galleon trade, an annual shipment to Acapulco from the Spanish colony in the Philippines. Goods came from Japan, India and especially China.

LACMA's canvas is the set's only one to retain its original painted wooden molding across the top and scroll bar at the bottom. The surviving equipment made the painting easy to roll, facilitating travel and safe storage.

Museum conservator Joseph Fronek said that storage probably helped preserve the chromatic brilliance of otherwise fugitive colors, such as the Spaniard's red velvet sleeve, painted in layered glazes. The overall condition is very good, with only minor paint losses in mostly secondary areas.

The painting's surprise reappearance follows a circuitous route through the last 100 years, recounted by Janssen. "From Spaniard and Morisca, Albino" (1763) came to the U.S. in the early 1920s, bought by David Gray, son of Ford Motor Co.'s founding president.

In 1919, Gray and his three siblings inherited $26 million — more than $350 million in today's inflation-adjusted currency — from the settlement of their father's original Ford investment. Gray promptly moved from snowy Detroit to balmy Montecito on the outskirts of Santa Barbara.

There, the taste for building Spanish Revival mansions was in full swing. Gray traveled to Spain to buy furnishings for the sprawling house, which he named Graholm, including the easily transportable Cabrera scroll.

Prior to his death in 1928, Gray gave the painting to his neighbor, real estate executive (and fellow former Detroiter) James R.H. Wagner.

The scroll passed down through Wagner's family to Janssen, his great-granddaughter. Before landing at her home in the East Bay, it stopped for a few decades to adorn the living room of the Vallejo-Casteñada Adobe — a historic house near the family ranch in Sonoma, dating to 1842. Don Juan Casteñada was a Mexican army captain.

The painting's Spaniard is likewise a soldier. His distinctive leather tunic identifies him as a member of Los Dragones de Cuera, a select military troop posted in northern New Spain.

He is depicted as a chain-smoker. A cigarette burns between his lips, another is tucked behind his ear and a pack lies open on the table next to his gun and dagger. The weapons are elaborately decorated with silver.

Mexico's tobacco industry was booming, as were the often brutal silver mines. Both provided huge revenues to the Spanish crown. The patron for Cabrera's set is unknown, but castas were sometimes made for Old World export to demonstrate colonial New World prosperity.

The Moorish woman is also dressed in specific finery that underscores her hybrid family. The exquisite floral-patterned dress is Asian, the prominently displayed lace on her sleeve European and the striped shawl around her shoulders a Mexican rebozo. The clothing reiterates Cabrera's painting — an Asian scroll painted in a European style by a Mexican artist.

Cabrera was born in Oaxaca around 1715 and soon orphaned. His premier status among indigenous viceregal artists is undisputed, but little is known about him before he emerged in the 1750s as a force in Mexico City. His own ethnic identity, once thought to be mestizo (Spanish and Indian), is a mystery.

As Cabrera became successful in racially obsessed New Spain, however, he identified as Spanish — the top of the casta hierarchy. He enrolled two daughters in an elite convent school that would only admit children of European ancestry.

Anxiety over his own identity perhaps generated his sympathetic portrayal of diverse ethnic types. LACMA's tender composition is even based on a traditionally Christian Holy Family motif.

Interest in castas' fictitious racial typing has blossomed in recent years. The paintings were long dismissed as ethnographic oddities, sometimes marred by frankly racist depictions.

Ironically, a unique genre invented to separate classes through racial hierarchy had an unexpected effect, helping to cement an idea of a Mexican identity different from Spain's. Castas chronicled the diversity of la raza. Fifty years after Cabrera's death, Mexicans launched their War of Independence.

Other works from Cabrera's casta set have been shown in three prior LACMA exhibitions. The rediscovered painting, LACMA's second by the artist, goes on view April 26 as one of 50 new acquisitions celebrating the museum's 50th anniversary.

With one casta from the set still missing, you might want to check under your sofa.

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