Costumbrismo


Francisco “Pancho” Fierro, Aguador (Water Carrier), c. 1850-60, watercolor on paper, 25.8 x 19.5 cm (Museum of Art of Lima)

Francisco “Pancho” Fierro, Aguador (Water Carrier), c. 1850-60, watercolor, 25.8 x 19.5 cm (Museum of Art of Lima)

Tipos drawn from the everyday

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, explorers and travelers (mainly of European descent) in Latin America, popularized a genre called costumbrismo: the depiction of local folklore, including social “types” and genre scenes.

Despite the fact that these scenes were often documented firsthand, the depictions themselves often followed the popular forms of fictionalized local “types” (or tipos), such as street-sellers, tortilla makers, gauchos (cowboys), poblanas (women from Puebla, Mexico), and tribesmen. Reproduced in prints, photographs, watercolors, and drawings, these circulated nationally and internationally, helping to shape both the perception of Latin America abroad, and the creation of a sense of national identity at home.

 

Carl Nebel, Poblanas, from Voyage pittoresque et archéologique, dans la partie la plus intéressante du Mexique, 1836

Carl Nebel, “Poblanas,” from Picturesque and Archeological Voyage in the Most Interesting Part of Mexico (Voyage pittoresque et archéologique, dans la partie la plus intéressante du Mexique), 1836

The pleasing and the picturesque

German artist Carl Nebel, who traveled throughout Mexico from 1829 to 1834, documented people of different regions in a lavish 1836 publication called Picturesque and Archeological Voyage in the Most Interesting Part of Mexico (The word “picturesque” refers not only to the quaint, charming nature of the subjects, but also to an idealized view of nature and human beings).

Nebel’s book featured 50 hand-colored lithographic prints accompanied by a written introduction by Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian naturalist who explored Latin America. Among Nebel’s depictions of local “types” is an image of poblanas (people from Puebla, in East-Central Mexico). The women are identified as being from Puebla by their simple white blouses and vibrantly colored and patterned skirts. The man at left is dressed in typical cowboy attire, with a broad hat, heavy shawl, and loose pants. The lack of any architectural detail or geographic reference, as well as the display of the poblanas from the front and back, reveals how Nebel stressed dress as a marker of regional identity.

Jean-Baptiste Debret, “Native Village in Cantagalo,” from Voyage pittoresque et historique au Brésil, 1834-9

Jean-Baptiste Debret, “Native Village in Cantagalo,” from Picturesque and Historical Voyage of Brazil (Voyage pittoresque et historique au Brésil), 1834-9

Travel books such as Nebel’s catered to a diverse and international viewership that included both “armchair tourists” and potential explorers. The French painter Jean-Baptiste Debret, who lived in Brazil from 1816 to 1831 and published his Picturesque and Historical Voyage of Brazil in 1834, also focused on local typologies. As seen in “Native Village in Cantagalo,” Debret depicts women and men in much the same stereotypical way they were depicted in the colonial era: naked, barefoot, and nomadic.

Francisco “Pancho” Fierro, Tapada limeña, c. 1850-60, watercolor on paper, 25.8 x 19.5 cm (Museum of Art of Lima)

Alberto Henschel, Fruitseller in Rio de Janeiro, 1870

Alberto Henschel, Fruitseller in Rio de Janeiro, c. 1870

A craze for the exotic

The watercolors of Peruvian artist Francisco “Pancho” Fierro, which were widely copied and sold, also feature many tipos. One of the most popular was the tapada, a woman who wore a sayo (skirt) and manto (shawl) to cover herself except for only one eye. In Tapada, the spareness of the composition focuses attention on the texture, color, and patterns of the woman’s costume. But because we are unable to see her face, the tapada lacks a specific identity—instead, she represents an ideal of femininity. The tapada became a symbol of mystery and seduction that melded with other problematic European beliefs about women in Latin America.

Photography eventually replaced prints, with postcards and cartes de visite, reaching wide circulation by the mid-nineteenth century. The photographs ability to “capture” reality made them scientifically significant, but they had wider appeal, as well: thanks to their portability and affordability, cartes de visite made “armchair tourism” even more accessible than books or prints.

Marc Ferrez, Bahian Woman, 1882, albumen print

Marc Ferrez, Bahian Woman, 1882, albumen print

Guido Boggiani, Caduveo Girl, 1897

Guido Boggiani, Caduveo Girl, 1897

Marc Ferrez was one of the first in Brazil to create cartes de visite. Catering to the demands of tourists, Ferrez photographed the Afro-Brazilian women of Salvador de Bahia (the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia).

In Bahian Woman, Ferrez presents a composition similar to the work of Fierro and Nebel, in which a centralized figure is set against a blank background. Ferrez presents the woman as an exotic “other,” adorned in elaborate traditional costume and jewelry that identifies her as a follower of the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé, which combined Christian and Western African spirituality. These women, commonly known as bahianas, stood out both inside and outside the state of Bahia, and reflected the amalgam of African and European culture that characterized Colonial Brazil.

Similarly, Guido Boggiani’s depiction of a woman from the Gran Chaco, Caduveo Girl features a similarly exotic representation of a native woman. Here, the subject is isolated and markers of cultural difference like her tattooed body are overtly emphasized. Like the tapadas, who solicited intrigue and mystery, these images of native women were designed to appeal to a European appetite for the exotic.


Additional resources:

“Pancho” Fierro images at the Museum of Art of Lima 

Debret’s Picturesque and Historical Voyage of Brazil (Voyage pittoresque et historique au Brésil), digital version from the New York Public Library

Short bio of Marc Ferrez from The J. Paul Getty Museum

Essay on Marc Ferrez’s urban photographs from the Google Cultural Institute

Cite this page as: Dr. Maya Jiménez, "Costumbrismo," in Smarthistory, December 19, 2017, accessed August 18, 2018, https://smarthistory.org/costumbrismo/.