Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Borrowing on a Spanish word for custom or practice, the costumbrismo movement provided a stylistic and thematic thread through nineteenth century art forms in both Spain and Latin America. The best-known costumbristas were Spanish literary figures who focused on the everyday manners and customs of specific social or provincial milieus.

Summary of Event

Rooted in prior Spanish literary movements and tied to the concurrent socioeconomic and political aspects of the Hispanic world, the costumbrismo movement reached its zenith around the middle third of the nineteenth century. The independence of South American nations and the continuing decline of Spain fostered a focus on specific surroundings and situations and a conservative, or defensive, versus liberal, or critical, paradigm. Overlapping with both Romanticism and realism in terms of time period and orientation, with a degree of continuity throughout the century, the influence of costumbrismo shows up in all the literary genres. However, the points at which one movement leaves off and another begins or continues are not well defined, and assigning writers to specific categories is often debatable. Costumbrismo movement Literature;Latin American South America;costumbrismo movement Central America;costumbrismo movement Spain;costumbrismo movement Spain;literature South America;literature [kw]Costumbrismo Movement (c. 1820-1860) [kw]Movement, Costumbrismo (c. 1820-1860) Costumbrismo movement Literature;Latin American South America;costumbrismo movement Central America;costumbrismo movement Spain;costumbrismo movement Spain;literature South America;literature [g]Central America and the Caribbean;c. 1820-1860: Costumbrismo Movement[1090] [g]Spain;c. 1820-1860: Costumbrismo Movement[1090] [g]South America;c. 1820-1860: Costumbrismo Movement[1090] [c]Literature;c. 1820-1860: Costumbrismo Movement[1090] [c]Theater;c. 1820-1860: Costumbrismo Movement[1090] Miñano y Bedoya, Sebastián Bretón de los Herreros, Manuel Böhl von Faber, Cecilia Estébañez Calderón, Serafín Mesonero Romanos, Ramón de Vega, Ventura de la Larra, Mariano José de Alarcón, Pedro Antonio de Pereda, José Maríade Medina y Tómas, Vicente Gabriel y Galán, José María

The two main types of costumbrista literature are artículos (articles), satirical or critical looks at reality that were frequently published in periodicals, and cuadros (pictures), picturesque examinations highlighting local color that were usually published in essay or short-story form. These works typically feature realistic descriptions of characters, manners, and customs; emphasize discourses on social background, rather than plot; and use short-story frameworks and dialogue to point up aspects of society. Such works were published on both sides of the Atlantic, but most of the works best known outside their own areas describe Castilian and Spanish Andalusian landscapes. They are frequently set in rural areas far from urban centers.

The first work considered costumbrista was Sebastián Miñano y Bedoya’s Miñano y Bedoya, Sebastián Cartas de un pobrecito holgazán (1820; letters of a poor loafer). However, the child prodigy Mariano José de Larra Larra, Mariano José de is considered the best-known literary figure to represent the conflict and ferment of that era. Although Larra wrote in all genres, including literary criticism, particularly theatrical criticism, he combined his journalistic and literary endeavors with his politically and philosophically liberal agenda. He is best known for moralizing and reformist works that he wrote under his pseudonym, Fígaro, or El Pobrecito Hablador (the Poor Little Talker). He was a fervent anti-Carlist and had a sad personal life, ending in suicide, that makes him seem more suited to the Romantic tradition. However, he had no nostalgia for the past and was an astute observer of traditional institutions who voiced his opinions and concerns using irony and satire. He wanted Spain to modernize and was an idealist who believed that both Spain and its population could better themselves.

Other writers tended to follow more limited, objective, and picturesque approaches that used local color and details without ideological overlays and revealed a preference for the past. For example, Ramón de Mesonero Romanos, Mesonero Romanos, Ramón de a Madrid businessman who became a writer, was an observer of scenes. He launched the first illustrated newspaper and retained many aspects of the eighteenth century neoclassical style in his works. Other notable prose writers in the movement included Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, Alarcón, Pedro Antonio de best known for El sombrero de tres picos (1874; The Three-Cornered Hat, 1886), and Armando Palacio Valdés, a literary critic, novelist, and writer of short stories.

Larra Larra, Mariano José de and Mesonero Romanos wrote mostly about urban life, but the majority of the costumbristas focused on rural milieus. For example, Serafín Estébañez Calderón Estébañez Calderón, Serafín , writing under the pseudonym El Solitario, wrote about the traditions of his native Andalusia in southern Spain, incorporating folklore, local color, and archaic effects. Another Andalusian, Salvador Rueda, wrote poetry, novels, short stories, and dramas featuring a similar provincial ambience. Costumbrista writings by Larra, Mesonero Romanos Mesonero Romanos, Ramón de , and others made extensive references to Andalusia and often portrayed scenes with Andalusian flamenco music Flamenco dancing Dance;Flamenco Spain;Flamenco dancing and dancing. For example, Estébañez Calderón’s Esceñas andaluzas (1847; Andalusian scenes) contains two stories so dedicated, mentioning mythical singers of the time, El Planeta and El Fillo, and describing aspects of flamenco.

Cecilia Böhl Böhl von Faber, Cecilia von Faber was the best-known conservative woman costumbrista. She wrote under the male pseudonym of Fernán Caballero and is remembered mostly for her novel La gaviota (1849; The Seagull, 1867). She was also a journalist and short-story writer. Another conservative novelist, José María de Pereda, Pereda, José María de was the most rigidly regional and reactionary costumbrista. He focused on the mountains of his native Santander in northern Spain.

The best-known poets of the costumbrista movement are Vicente Medina y Tómas Medina y Tómas, Vicente and José María Gabriel y Galán, Gabriel y Galán, José María from Murcia and Extremadura respectively. Both were schoolteachers who shared a rural orientation. Medina, a journalist and soldier, published in newspapers and wrote regionalistic, rustic poetry in simple language with dialect about the soul and spirit of the people. His writings featured primitive elemental aspects, rather than picturesque aspects of regions. Gabriel became a provincial farmer whose poetry featured landscapes, rustic sayings, and the use of dialect in treating the simplicity of rural life.

In costumbrista Theater;Spanish theater, Manuel Bretón Bretón de los Herreros, Manuel de los Herreros was the first Spanish dramatist to move from imitating the famous neoclassicist Leandro Fernández de Moratín(1760-1828) toward realistic comedies of manners and drama of social satire. Ventura de la Vega Vega, Ventura de la , who was born in Argentina but taken to Spain at an early age, also imitated Fernández de Moratín in his early writings. An actor, lecturer, and socially critical dramatist, he developed the modern zarzuela from a short musical dramatic form from earlier centuries.


Costumbrismo set the stage for both Romanticism and realism in Spain and Pereda’s Pereda, José María de rural-versus-urban dichotomy influenced the later civilization-versus-barbarism literary theme in Latin America. Furthermore, Pereda’s personal progression from sketch to novel helped set the stage for the realistic novels of manners of the late nineteenth century and laid the groundwork for regional novels, the first examples of which were a string of cuadros with flimsy plots. Those regional and realistic novels grew out of the artículos de costumbre and the realistic novels of earlier centuries and had little foreign influence, as they relied on their own portrayed traditions.

Romanticism, somewhat time-delayed in Spain, may have been so since artículos, essays in fictional form, already fulfilled the purpose of fiction. Some critics believe that Romanticism was delayed in Spain due to the socially repressive nature of King Fernando VII’s reign, which seemed to tolerate the critical artículos as nonthreatening. The same critics cite as evidence for their theory the attitudinal shift after the death of Fernando and the establishment of a liberal government.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chandler, Richard E., and Kessel Schwartz. A New History of Spanish Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1961. Although somewhat dated and often fragmented in its coverage of the broad field of Spanish literature, this survey contains a useful overview of the costumbrismo movement and its writers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franco, Jean. An Introduction to Spanish American Literature. 1969. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. The first four chapters of this survey cover Latin American literature during the time period generally associated with costumbrismo. The next four chapters cover the corresponding social milieu associated with Spanish costumbrismo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Montesinos, José. Introducción a una historia de la novela en España, en el siglo XIX. Valencia: Editorial Castalia, 1955. Important Spanish-language work that ties the nineteenth century’s movements together chronologically, thematically, and stylistically.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodríguez Rubí, Tomás, et al. Los españoles pintados por sí mismos, 1843-4. Vols. 1-2. Madrid: Gaspar y Roig, 1851. Published at the zenith of the costumbrista movement, this seminal volume contains forty-nine articles by members of the movement, as well as Romantics, such as the Duque de Rivas, José de Zorrilla y Moral, and Juan Hartzenbusch.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schurlknight, Donald E. Spanish Romanticism in Context: Of Subversion, Contradiction, and Politics—Espronceda, Larra, Rivas, Zorrilla. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1998. Explains Spain’s nineteenth century literary movements and characteristics within a sociopolitical setting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silver, Philip W. Ruin and Restitution: Reinterpreting Romanticism in Spain. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005. Study of Spanish literature that redefines nineteenth century literary movements.

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Categories: History