Costumbrismo – Concept, historical context, themes and authors

We explain what manners is, its historical context and its common themes. In addition, literary manners and its authors.

Costumbrismo portrays the local customs of a specific society.

What is manners?

In art history, manners are known as a artistic movement, mainly pictorial and literary, which set out to reflect the customs (hence its name) and the local uses that were typical of a specific society, such as its traditional folklore, its ritual practices or its daily life.

Manners arose in the nineteenth century, as a consequence of the aesthetic ideals promoted by Romanticism, and although it was not exclusive to Spain, it was strongly linked to the art and literature of that country, especially during the reign of Isabel II, “Queen Castiza”. However, this trend was also strong in the nascent Spanish-American republics, as a way of recovering the local “collective identity”.

Traditionally it is interpreted as a response to the advance of realism and the Industrial Revolution, that put in check the folkloric and traditional legacy linked to the rural past. Thus, costumbrismo does not propose to represent reality scientifically, as realism and naturalism would, but to recover a cultural legacy embodied in a picturesque, colorful, passionate way.

Historical context of manners

Strictly speaking, costumbrismo was born as an idea in the 18th century, with creators such as the Spanish playwright Ramón de la Cruz (1731-1794) and his comedy of manners, or the famous tapestry cartoons by the painter Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) . Nevertheless, had its heyday in 19th century Spain, which was a particularly turbulent period and complicated, of profound changes in the life of the country.

This implied, on the one hand, agricultural modernization, the result of the influence of the Industrial Revolution, and the triumph of the bourgeoisie as the ruling class throughout Europe. Furthermore, the old absolutist monarchy collapsed and was replaced by a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy.

All this happened in the midst of a defeatist climate after the loss of the American colonies, due to the bloody Wars of Independence that began in the region at the beginning of the 19th century. The last of these took place between Spain and Cuba, whose victory in 1895 put an end to the Spanish imperial pretensions in America.

This atmosphere of change, similar to that of the rest of Europe, was not, however, so successful in Spain, a country that retained its marked agricultural spirit and did not become fully industrialized, at least in comparison with the countries of Protestant Europe.

Even so, it was intense enough to provoke a century of politico-social tensions that led to the fall of the monarchy and the declaration of the short-lived First Spanish Republic in 1873, which succumbed in 1874 to a conservative coup that led to a dictatorship and a Bourbon restoration at the end of the century. These political dilemmas survived in Spain into the 20th century, and were the basis of the coming Spanish Civil War.

Themes of manners

manners themes
The festivals and traditions are represented in costumbrismo.

The usual themes of manners have to do with:

  • The customs of rural and peasant life, with the presence of rites, pictures of customs, family and folklore.
  • The representative daily life of cities, especially with regard to its most iconic figures, such as priests, teachers, landowners, politicians.
  • The meeting between the country and the city, usually reproducing a critical look at the new modern world, which distanced itself from the traditions and from what until then had been “own”.
  • The regionalist language, with the presence of word games, proverbs, forms of speech and other “proper” language modes.
  • The dances, rites, parties and ceremonies popular, legends and superstitions.

Literary custom

In the specific case of literature, costumbrismo set out to portray traditional popular life without any intention of criticizing it (something that would be present in realism), and for this it made use of prose, in three fundamental genres or manifestations:

  • Custom pictures. This is the name (or “articles of customs”) to small texts of a literary and journalistic nature, which were usually published in newspapers and magazines as a diversion or a pedagogical guide, and in which they were described in the most picturesque and colorful way possible. some of the traditions and folklore of the rural world. There were large compilations of these articles, such as Spaniards painted by themselves (1843-1844), where the work of 51 different authors is collected.
  • The novel of manners. Also called “novel of customs”, whose plot used to explore different popular scenes with a marked local flavor, leaving out any ideological argument or social criticism. These types of novels, however, often had meeting points with the social novel of naturalism.
  • The comedy of manners. A theatrical (or dramaturgical) variant of costumbrismo, it consisted of the light, often funny representation of daily scenes of rural life, or of bourgeois life, the latter often with parodic or ironic intentions. It has a very superficial critical intention, which does not seek to go to the foundations of society itself, but just to confront the public with a clumsy, funny version of their own lives and customs.

Custom authors

costumbrismo authors
Gustave Doré is famous for his illustrations of Don Quixote, the Divine Comedy and the Bible.

A partial list of customary authors should include the following names:

  • Manuel Cabral Aguado -Bejarano (1827-1891), Spanish painter of the Andalusian school, considered one of the main exponents of both the genre and the school.
  • Manuel Rodriguez de Guzman (1818-1867), Spanish costumbrista painter who began at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Santa Isabel de Hungary and later became part of the Andalusian costumbrista school.
  • Juan Rodriguez Jimenez (1765-1830), Spanish painter known as “the Andalusian Goya”, whose beginnings were painted religious pictures for the Cathedral of Cádiz. His work largely survives in the Museum of Romanticism.
  • Jose Zorrilla (1817-1893), Spanish poet and playwright, famous for his Don Juan Tenorio (1844), as well as other legends and popular theatrical pieces.
  • Gustave Doré (1832-1883), French painter, sculptor and illustrator, considered one of the greatest illustrators of the 19th century, for his representations of famous works of literature such as Don Quixote, the Divine Comedy or the Bible. He also dedicated part of his work to traditional myths and legends, as well as to pictures of customs.
  • Rafael Maria Baralt (1810-1860), Venezuelan politician, historian, journalist and poet, whose poetry focused on local values, extolling heroes of independence and heroic battles, as well as landscapes and everyday scenes from Venezuela and Spain itself.
  • José María Vergara and Vergara (1831-1872), Colombian writer, journalist and historian who participated in the creation of numerous literary newspapers, in which he disseminated the work of numerous European and Colombian folkloric authors, such as that of the famous novelist Jorge Isaacs.
  • José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi (1776-1827), known as “the Mexican thinker”, was a Mexican novelist famous for his work The Periquillo Sarmiento (1816). He was also a student of politics, literature, linguistics and historiography, in whose literary work the dialect of the time is embodied: student, medical, slum, etc.