Los Angeles Times

An 18th cen­tury mas­ter­piece ap­pears to be hid­ing in L.A.

A let­ter hints at the where­abouts of ‘Es­pañola,’ the long-lost work from a set by Miguel Cabrera

- By Christo­pher Knight

A miss­ing mas­ter­piece of 18th cen­tury paint­ing, lost for more than 100 years, has ap­par­ently been hang­ing in a Los An­ge­les home since the mid-1950s.

Nick­named “Es­pañola” — Span­ish girl — af­ter the primped and pow­dered child who is the paint­ing’s fo­cus, the lost work is from a bril­liant set of 16 paint­ings by Miguel Cabrera (circa 1715-1768), the great­est painter of his age in Mex­ico. The paint­ings are be­lieved to have left the coun­try two years be­fore the artist’s death, but the where­abouts of “Es­pañola” has long been un­known.

Now it seems the sin­gu­lar gem has been hid­ing in plain sight — al­though the ex­act lo­ca­tion of the do­mes­tic hide­away re­mains a nag­ging mys­tery.

Ilona Katzew, cu­ra­tor of Latin Amer­i­can art at the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art, has puz­zled over the be­dev­il­ing ques­tion for the last two years af­ter re­ceiv­ing an en­tic­ing — and ec­cen­tric — let­ter. It was writ­ten in the voice of Es­pañola, then signed as if by the lit­tle girl, who in the el­e­gant paint­ing is be­ing adored by her proud par­ents, all three dressed in sump­tu­ous fin­ery.

“You should know that I am well and liv­ing less than two (2) miles from LACMA,” Es­pañola wrote late in sum­mer 2015. “I have been in the same fam­ily for I be­lieve 60 years, al­though I do not know how I was ac­quired.”

The Cabrera paint­ing is part of a cel­e­brated set of casta, or caste, paint­ings. In a racial hi­er­ar­chy de­vised by white elites dur­ing the viceroy­alty of New Spain, casta paint­ings ex­plored the theme of mis­ce­gena­tion, or in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage, among In­di­ans, Spa­niards born in Spain, Cre­oles (Spa­niards born in the New World) and Africans.

More than 120 casta sets, typ­i­cally in­clud­ing 16 care­fully num­bered paint­ings, are known. They were painted in dif­fer­ent for­mats by artists of var­ied skill, in­clud­ing such tal­ented painters as Juan Pa­tri­cio Mor­lete Ruiz and Juan Ro­dríguez Juárez. Most sets have been bro­ken up and in­di­vid­ual paint­ings widely dis­persed. Cabrera painted only one set, con­sid­ered the genre’s finest.

Two from his suite of 16 dis­ap­peared long ago. But one of them — No. 6 in the set — was dis­cov­ered rolled up and stored un­der a couch in a North­ern Cal­i­for­nia home. Passed down through de­scen­dants of min­ing ty­coon John P. Jones, a co-founder of Santa Mon­ica, the paint­ing was a trea­sured fam­ily heir­loom about which they knew lit­tle. Its owner, Christina Jones Janssen, a re­tired cor­po­rate at­tor­ney, de­cided to re­search the un­usual pic­ture.

In April 2015, her as­ton­ish­ing dis­cov­ery was greeted with great fan­fare, land­ing on The Times’ front page.

LACMA quickly ac­quired the mas­ter­piece. Katzew is a lead­ing scholar of casta paint­ings. When she was a young grad­u­ate stu­dent, her very first re­search pa­per an­a­lyzed Cabrera’s set. No. 6 went on view just in time for the ex­hi­bi­tion “50 for 50: Gifts on the Oc­ca­sion of LACMA’s An­niver­sary.”

The owner of “Es­pañola” went to see it.

“My owner has en­joyed see­ing #6,” Es­pañola’s let­ter said, “and I am pleased that we are all now ac­counted for de­spite the di­as­pora.”

Five snapshots showing de­tails of the paint­ing tum­bled out from the en­ve­lope. No pre-mod­ern images or even writ­ten de­scrip­tions of Cabrera’s set are known, but Katzew has lit­tle doubt of the paint­ing’s au­then­tic­ity. Cer­tainty would re­quire ex­am­in­ing the can­vas in per­son, but stylis­ti­cally, and be­cause of its su­perla­tive and dis­tinc­tive re­la­tion­ship to oth­ers in the set, the at­tri­bu­tion seems sure.

The most com­plete snap­shot con­tains the re­flected burst of light from the cam­era’s flash near the bot­tom, ob­scur­ing the fold­ing fan held in the right hand of Es­pañola’s fa­ther. It also shows a frag­ment of the pic­ture’s mod­ern frame at a rak­ing an­gle. Given th­ese de­tails, the paint­ing ap­pears to hang on a high wall.

But where? A two-mile ra­dius around LACMA stretches from the edge of Beverly Hills to Han­cock Park, from West Hol­ly­wood in the north all the way to the 10 Free­way in the south. That’s a lot of houses and apart­ments.

Es­pañola’s let­ter dropped an­other bomb­shell:

“If you ever gather a re­union of all my sib­lings, I would wel­come the op­por­tu­nity to be on dis­play for a limited pe­riod of time. I am not lost, I just do not wish to be found.”

A nearly full re­union had hap­pened nine years ear­lier, when 14 of the 16 paint­ings were as­sem­bled from mu­se­ums in Madrid and Mon­ter­rey, Mex­ico, as well as a Los An­ge­les foun­da­tion, for “Te­soros/Trea­sures/ Te­souros: The Arts in Latin Amer­ica, 1492-1820,” a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion at the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art. They had not been seen to­gether in at least a cen­tury.

Es­pañola signed her let­ter, neatly typed in the style of for­mal busi­ness cor­re­spon­dence. But she in­cluded no re­turn mail­ing ad­dress, no tele­phone num­ber, no email ad­dress or any other way to con­tact the owner. The mail­ing la­bel had even been trimmed, ap­par­ently to re­move a po­ten­tially re­veal­ing bit of data.

Katzew’s heart sank.

The cu­ra­tor was well into re­search on “Painted in Mex­ico, 1700-1790: Pinxit Mex­ici,” the most com­pre­hen­sive mu­seum sur­vey ever de­voted to the pe­riod and set to open at LACMA next month. Cabrera’s cas­tas were painted in 1763, when the cen­tury’s pre­mier artist was about 50 and at the height of his pow­ers. “Painted in Mex­ico” would be the ideal con­text into which the lost mas­ter­piece could be rein­tro­duced to schol­ars and the public.

Work on the mam­moth show would soon oc­cupy all of Katzew’s time. It as­sem­bles 139 of­ten mon­u­men­tal, not widely known paint­ings, many un­pub­lished, and is or­ga­nized with her art-his­to­rian col­leagues Luisa Elena Al­calá from Madrid and Jaime Cuadriello from Mex­ico City. On view now in the

Mex­i­can cap­i­tal, the show will travel to the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art in New York next spring, af­ter it closes at LACMA. Pressed for time, Katzew made a few un­suc­cess­ful stabs at try­ing to lo­cate the mys­tery owner.

Mad­den­ingly, the stamps on the en­ve­lope were not can­celed at the post of­fice, which might have nar­rowed the area of town from which the let­ter was mailed. Nei­ther are the stamps re­cent. Thirty-seven-cent stamps were re­tired a decade be­fore the let­ter was sent, while the com­mem­o­ra­tive stamp hon­or­ing writer Jack Lon­don was is­sued in 1988.

Katzew took the five snapshots to Samy’s Cam­era, where no­ta­tions on the back in­di­cated they had been printed. The store, just a few blocks from the mu­seum, fur­ther sug­gested that the paint­ing could be nearby.

Yet, ei­ther for pri­vacy con­cerns or lack of iden­ti­fy­ing marks, Samy’s was un­able to name the snapshots’ source.

Katzew be­lieves Cabrera’s casta set was prob­a­bly com­mis­sioned by no less a per­son­age than the viceroy of New Spain, Joaquin de Montser­rat, Mar­qués de Cruil­las, who re­turned to Madrid when his term in Mex­ico City con­cluded in 1766. The stature of the pa­tron matched that of the artist, and the two were ac­quainted. Many cas­tas were made for ex­port to Spain to demon­strate that good or­der was be­ing main­tained in the colony; Katzew sur­mises that Montser­rat brought the im­pres­sive set home with him.

Eight paint­ings from the full set are now in Madrid’s Museo de América, Europe’s finest col­lec­tion of Span­ish Colo­nial and pre-Con­quest art. The casta that turned up stashed un­der a Bay Area sofa was bought in Madrid in the 1920s, des­tined to dec­o­rate a Mon­tecito man­sion dur­ing the Span­ish Re­vival de­sign boom in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Could “Es­pañola” have come with it?

It’s the third one linked to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. An­other is in the col­lec­tion of the Ran­cho de la Cordillera Foun­da­tion in Northridge, es­tab­lished around the Mex­i­can art in­ter­ests of the late South­west Mu­seum di­rec­tor Carl S. Dentzel and his wife, Elis­a­beth Waldo, a vi­o­lin­ist and scholar of pre-Columbian mu­sic.

Five from the set are in a pri­vate col­lec­tion in Mon­ter­rey, on loan to the city’s Mex­i­can his­tory mu­seum. Most or all were ac­quired at New York auc­tions in the early 1980s, when in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est — and prices — for cas­tas were mod­est. Ex­perts in the Latin Amer­i­can mar­ket es­ti­mate the “Es­pañola” paint­ing’s mon­e­tary value at around $1.5 mil­lion.

Katzew’s calls to the auc­tion houses didn’t yield help­ful re­sults. She had to sus­pend her search.

Now, with her 18th cen­tury paint­ing show fin­ished and set to open at LACMA on Nov. 19, she’s hope­ful the owner of “Es­pañola” might drop in to see it — and get in touch again. She’s even pre­pared to make space for “Es­pañola” on the wall next to her re­dis­cov­ered sib­ling.

“3. From Spa­niard and Cas­tiza, Span­ish Girl,” its full ti­tle, is an es­pe­cially im­por­tant pic­ture in the set be­cause of its uniquely sump­tu­ous de­tails. The Span­ish fa­ther, dressed in a doveg­ray frock coat and tri-cor­ner hat, is an aris­to­crat. The cas­tiza mother, off­spring of a Spa­niard and a mes­tiza (half Span­ish, half In­dian), is dressed in re­gal splen­dor — em­broi­dered silks, del­i­cate lace, pearls on her wrist and an ex­trav­a­gant coral neck­lace.

Her re­fined black-lace man­tilla, Katzew says, is vir­tu­ally unique in the casta paint­ing genre.

So is the painted fold­ing screen in the back­ground, a legacy of ex­pen­sively im­ported Ja­panese art. Mother and fa­ther both carry fold­ing fans — a rar­ity for a man — dou­bling the em­pha­sis on an­other Ja­panese im­port as an ex­otic sta­tus sym­bol.

As for lit­tle Es­pañola, who sports a di­a­dem of flow­ers above her rouged-porce­lain face, she’s swathed in crisp pink and gold silks, costly white lace and a pro­fu­sion of pearls, of­ten a Catholic sym­bol of pu­rity. Cabrera’s com­po­si­tion casts the proud trio as a ver­i­ta­ble Holy Fam­ily.

Why all the vis­ual fan­fare?

Per­haps be­cause the third in a casta set rep­re­sents a mo­men­tous oc­ca­sion: In the con­quer­ing white cul­ture’s fab­ri­cated racial and so­cial hi­er­ar­chy, it’s the first time a child mirac­u­lously re­turns mixe­drace parent­age to purely Span­ish iden­tity. A Spa­niard mar­ries a Span­ish In­dian woman, and in the crazy

casta world, that’s enough Euro­pean blood to con­sider their child fully Span­ish.

“Es­pañola” rep­re­sents a home­com­ing to the pin­na­cle of the power lad­der. The fam­ily is dressed for the oc­ca­sion, sanc­ti­fied by lux­ury.

Cabrera, whose ge­nius as an artist in­vented th­ese ex­tra­or­di­nary vis­ual cues, may have had per­sonal rea­sons to go over the top. Lit­tle is known about him be­fore he emerged in the 1750s as an artis­tic force in Mex­ico City. Born in Oax­aca, his own eth­nic iden­tity, once thought to be mes­tizo (Span­ish and In­dian), is a mys­tery.

Yet, as Cabrera be­came suc­cess­ful in the com­pet­i­tive and racially ob­sessed cap­i­tal of New Spain, he in­sis­tently iden­ti­fied as Span­ish. In the hid­den re­main­ing link to his mag­nif­i­cent casta set, “Es­pañola” just might em­body his anx­i­ety over his own iden­tity.

 ?? Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art ?? FOUR­TEEN of the 16 casta paint­ings in Miguel Cabrera’s 1763 set were re­united for an ex­hibit at the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art in 2006. Such works ex­plored the theme of mis­ce­gena­tion, or in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage, among In­di­ans, Spa­niards born in Spain,...
Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art FOUR­TEEN of the 16 casta paint­ings in Miguel Cabrera’s 1763 set were re­united for an ex­hibit at the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art in 2006. Such works ex­plored the theme of mis­ce­gena­tion, or in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage, among In­di­ans, Spa­niards born in Spain,...
 ?? Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art ?? THE dis­cov­ery of the miss­ing No. 6 in Cabrera’s set prompted the owner of “Es­pañola” to send the let­ter.
Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art THE dis­cov­ery of the miss­ing No. 6 in Cabrera’s set prompted the owner of “Es­pañola” to send the let­ter.
 ??  ?? FOUR of the five snapshots of the Miguel Cabrera paint­ing “Es­pañola” that were in­cluded in an en­tic­ing let­ter to a LACMA cu­ra­tor by a per­son pur­port­ing to be the mas­ter­piece’s owner.
FOUR of the five snapshots of the Miguel Cabrera paint­ing “Es­pañola” that were in­cluded in an en­tic­ing let­ter to a LACMA cu­ra­tor by a per­son pur­port­ing to be the mas­ter­piece’s owner.
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 ?? Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art ?? THE LET­TER re­veal­ing that the paint­ing is some­where in L.A. was writ­ten in Es­pañola’s voice. The stamps on the en­ve­lope were not can­celed at the post of­fice, which might have nar­rowed the area of town from which the let­ter was mailed.
Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art THE LET­TER re­veal­ing that the paint­ing is some­where in L.A. was writ­ten in Es­pañola’s voice. The stamps on the en­ve­lope were not can­celed at the post of­fice, which might have nar­rowed the area of town from which the let­ter was mailed.
 ?? LACMA ??
LACMA

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