An intriguing story recently ran in the Los Angeles Times regarding an 18th century masterpiece painting that has gone missing for more than a century. The mysterious painting seems to have been hiding in plain sight in a Los Angeles home since the mid-1950s, but the exact location of the work is unknown. The painting is known as “Española” (Spanish Girl) after the primped and powdered child that is the focus of the work. The lost work is from a treasured set of 16 paintings by the artist Miguel Cabrera (circa 1715-1768), who is considered the “greatest painter of his age” in Mexico. It is believed that the paintings left the country shortly before the artist’s death, but the whereabouts of Española have long remained unknown.
Curator of Latin American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Ilona Katzew, has been perplexed over the lost painting since 2015 after receiving an eccentric letter written in the first person voice of Española and then signed as if by the young child. Española wrote in late summer 2015: “You should know that I am well and living less than two (2) miles from LACMA,” adding “I have been in the same family for I believe 60 years, although I do not know how I was acquired.”
Cabrera’s Española painting is part of a treasured set of casta, or caste, paintings. More than 120 casta sets, which typically include 16 numbered paintings, are known. The casta sets were painted in different formats by talented artists of varying skill. Most of these sets have been divided up and individual paintings widely circulated. Cabrera had painted just one set, which is considered the genre’s finest.
Two paintings from Cabrera’s set of 16 had gone missing long ago, but one of them, No. 6, was found hidden in a Northern California home. The painting’s owner researched the work’s history and her surprising discovery landed on the cover page of the Los Angeles Times in April 2015. Soon thereafter, LACMA acquired the painting. And Española’s owner went to see it. Española in her letter from late summer 2015 further wrote: “My owner enjoyed seeing #6 and I am pleased that we are all now accounted for despite the diaspora.”
Several photographs showing details of the missing Española painting were enclosed in the envelope. Although there are no known pre-modern images or written descriptions of Cabrera’s set, Katzew has little doubt of the authenticity of the painting.
Española’s letter revealed another astonishing detail.
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 near complete reunion occurred several years earlier when 14 of the 16 paintings from Cabrera’s set were brought together from museums in Madrid and Monterrey, Mexico as well as a Los Angeles foundation, for a major exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art entitled “Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros: The Art in Latin America, 1492-1820” in 2006. The paintings from Cabrera’s set had not been displayed together in at least a century.
Española’s letter was signed by her and neatly typed in the format of formal business correspondence, however, she did not include a return mailing address, telephone number, e-mail address, or any other way to get in contact with the owner. The stamps on the envelope were not even canceled at the post office.
During this time, Katzew was well into her research for her upcoming exhibition entitled “Painted in Mexico, 1700-1790: Pinxit Mexici,” which is said to be the most comprehensive museum survey ever devoted to the period and is set to open at LACMA later this month on November 19, 2017.
Katzew is hopeful that Española’s owner will stop in to see the exhibition and perhaps get in contact again. She has even made space for Española on the wall next to the painting’s “rediscovered sibling,” No. 6:
‘[No.] 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 dove-gray 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.”
For further information on this fascinating story, see “A masterpiece of Baroque painting, missing for more than a century, is hiding somewhere in L.A.,” published online by the Los Angeles Times on October 22, 2017.