Hunt for missing painting that wrote curator a letter

I am not lost, I just do not wish to be found’, reads the letter from the Spanish girl who is the subject of an 18th-century painting missing for over 100 years and now thought to be hiding in Los Angeles.

The letter, penned as though it were from the hand of the lavishly dressed little girl in Miguel Cabrera’s ‘3. From Spaniard and Castiza, Spanish Girl’ (1763), was sent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015. ‘You should know that I am well and living less than two (2) miles from LACMA’, the girl, who has been nicknamed ‘Española’, writes. The clue to the lost painting’s whereabouts provided in the letter has tantalised LACMA’s curator of Latin American art, Ilona Katzew, for years.

A leading scholar of ‘casta’ or caste paintings, of which Española is considered a masterful example, Katzew made numerous attempts at tracing the missing work. Cabrera’s Spanish Girl covered her tracks expertly, leaving no return address or contact details and even ensuring the stamps on the envelope were not canceled at the post office, which might have revealed from what area of LA it was mailed. Marks on the back of five photographs of the painting accompanying the letter indicated they had been printed at a camera store mere blocks from LACMA. The store was unable to disclose to Katzew who brought the photos in for printing.

‘Casta’ paintings were typically painted in numbered sets of 16 works and explored interracial marriage among subjects of the viceroyalty in New Spain. Though Cabrera only painted one ‘casta’ set in 1763 it is considered the most exceptional and is split between collections in Madrid, Monterrey, Mexico and Los Angeles. Two of the 16 paintings were thought missing until No. 6 was discovered under a couch in a home in Northern California in 2015 and acquired by LACMA. Now only Española remains at large.

Katzew remains hopeful that she may yet see all 16 paintings reunited. A further clue from Española’s letter has convinced the curator that she may be closer than she thinks. ‘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’, the Spanish Girl writes. For this purpose, Katzew has left an empty space for No. 3 right beside where No. 6 hangs in a new exhibition opening at LACMA on 19 November 2017 on 18th -century Mexican paintings.

It remains to be seen whether Española will honour her promise and pay her family a visit.

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