Rare race, class, fashion depictions: Lost 'casta' paintings at LACMA

A pair of colonial Latin American treasures land @LACMA, revealing race & class clues

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art didn't begin to collect colonial Latin American art in a serious way until 2006. For years, in fact, the only significant Latin American colonial object in the museum's collection was a 16th century Mexican chalice that had been donated by William Randolph Hearst.

But over the past decade, the museum has managed to amass more than six-dozen pieces in this understudied area. And it has some good ones — from a dramatic 17th century folding screen that depicts a riotous Indian wedding, to a striking 18th century depiction of the miraculous Christ of Ixmiquilpan. Plus, there's my favorite: the coca box in the shape of a shell.

Now the museum has made two new significant additions: a pair of rare canvases from Ecuador attributed to 18th century Quito master Vicente Albán. 

"Unfortunately, we don't know a whole lot about him," says LACMA Latin American Art curator Ilona Katzew. "But we do know that Vicente, along with his brother Francisco, were important figures; 18th century accounts mention them as the most prominent painters of the day."

The two paintings that were acquired — "Indian Woman in Special Attire" and "Noble Woman With Her Black Slave" — were each painted in the vicinity of 1783. They were part of a set of six canvases that depicted different racial types from the Spanish vice royalty of Nueva Granada (of which modern-day Ecuador was a part) — so-called "casta" paintings because they depict the social castes.

The four other paintings in the set had appeared in museum exhibitions over the years, but the whereabouts of this pair remained unknown. Last year, however, they were put up at auction by a private collector in Florida, and LACMA quickly snatched them up — for good reason. South American casta paintings are rare (most hail from Mexico). But beyond that, Albán's work is simply exquisite, offering an unparalleled glimpse of life in that era.

They contain remarkably rendered details — such as the herringbone pattern of the Indian woman's mantle. But they also serve as an important taxonomy of the people and flora of Latin America. Each piece features a person of a different race and social status, wearing attire that is fitting of their station. The paintings also depict a sumptuous array of New World fruits and vegetables, from loquats to avocados, all of which are painstakingly labeled.

The pieces were recently installed in the LACMA Latin American art galleries and they are a wonder to behold. Katzew has an informative post with many detailed images over at LACMA's Unframed blog. It provides terrific context on the dress, the figures and the social milieu in which these remarkable works were created.

If you're at the museum, do not miss!

Vicente Albán's "Indian Woman in Special Attire" and "Noble Woman with Her Black Slave" are on view indefinitely on the fourth floor of the Art of the Americas building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles, lacma.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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