Hidden in Plain Sight

An 18th-century Spanish Baroque painting, that has been missing for more than one hundred years, has apparently been hiding somewhere in Los Angeles for the past sixty years.

The artwork is nicknamed “Española,” or, “Spanish Girl” because of the dolled-up child in between a man and a woman who appear to be her parents. This work is from a set of sixteen paintings by Miguel Cabrera (c. 1715-1768), one of the greatest painters in Mexico during his time. These paintings are part of the celebrated set of casta, or caste, paintings that depicted and categorize the hierarchy of interracial mixings among Indians, Spaniards, Creoles, and Africans.

Las castas. Anonymous, 18th century, oil on canvas, 148×104 cm, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.

These paintings were usually commissioned by white elites during the viceroyalty of New Spain in the early 1700’s. They were seen as a sort of souvenir that they can bring back to their home country of Spain and show it off to their elite friends. More than 120 casta paintings still exist today, each painted by different artists depicting their different styles.

Of these set of sixteen paintings by Miguel Cabrera, only two of them had disappeared. One of the two was found in 2015 rolled up and stored under a couch in a Northern California home. The painting had apparently been passed down by the family of mining tycoon John P. Jones, who was a co-founder of Santa Monica in the late 1800’s. After the discovery, LACMA (Los Angele County Museum of Art) quickly acquired it.

Miguel Cabrera, “6. From Spaniard and Morisca, Albino Girl,” 1763, oil on canvas. (LACMA)

No. 6’s first exhibition after returning was “50 for 50: Gifts on the Occasion of LACMA’s Anniversary.” Shortly after, Ilona Katzew who is the curator of Latin American art at LACMA, received a mysterious envelope with no return address. When she opened the letter, it read:

As you can tell, the letter was written in the voice of Española, then signed at the bottom as if by the little girl herself. The five snapshots in the envelope were finally able to show what the painting looked like since there were no pre-modern images or even written descriptions of Cabrera’s set.

Sanpshots of the long-shot casta painting showing luxurious details and a modern frame. (LACMA)

Katzew did everything to try to find some hint of where this envelope came from. A 2 mile radius might seem short, but it ranges a lot of houses and apartments which would make it impossible to pinpoint. The stamps that she looked into were not canceled by the post office, which would have narrowed her search. They stopped making the thirty-seven-cent a decade before the letter was sent, and the commemorative stamp honoring writer Jack London was issued in 1988. As for the snapshots, Katzew even took the snaps to Sammy’s Camera to see if they can get some information about the prints only to come out empty handed as well.

“3. From Spaniard and Castiza, Spanish Girl,” became its official full title. This painting is specially important in the set of sixteen because of its uniquely lavish details that represents a momentous occasion in casta history. You can see the aristocrat Spanish father dressed in a dove-gray frock coat and tri-corner hat. The castiza mother, who is the offspring of a Spaniard and a mestiza (half Spanish, half Indian), is dressed in regal splendor with a refine black lace mantilla, embroidered silks, delicate lace, pearls on her wrist, and an extravagant coral necklace. As for the little Española standing in the middle of her parents, she is dressed in crisp pink and gold silks, white lace, and a sparkling pearl necklace that highlights her porcelain face. All these details are especially important when you think about the white culture’s fabricated racial and social hierarchy. In this mix between a Spaniard and a Spanish Indian woman, the child produced has enough European blood to be considered fully Spanish.

Will we ever get to see little Española in real life? As much as we hate that the owner is keeping her “hostage,” I appreciate what their cleverness in composing a letter in Española’s voice, as well as appreciative of providing scholars with snap shots of what the artwork looks like. At least the letter lets us know that she alive and well kept. One wonder now if we will be able to see her in our lifetime.

If you would like to read more about this discovery, check out this LA Times Article.

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