Critiquing the Canon: Pancho Fierro and Peruvian costumbrismo


Art is not neutral; nor is its history.

As it currently stands, the conventional canon of the history of art is rich with Western artists representing other cultures but is nearly devoid of non-Western artists representing themselves. From Jean-Léon Gérôme to Pablo Picasso, many canonical artists derived inspiration from non-European traditions, but these interplays did not amount to genuine artistic exchange. For non-European traditions were not appreciated within themselves; instead, they were evoked as exotic ‘others’ predetermined for appropriation by the Western gaze.[1] But innumerable artists and craftsmen sought to resist this appropriation, one of whom being Peruvian painter Pancho Fierro. Emerging in the mid-nineteenth century—the transitional phase between Peru’s colonial and Republican periods—Fierro’s watercolors contributed to the formation of a Peruvian national identity.[2] And his proximity to this identity ultimately enabled Fierro to represent the genuine vibrancy of Latin American life.

Appropriately designated, Fierro’s Tailor Shop offers a view into a tailor shop situated on a mid-nineteenth century Peruvian street (Fig. 1). The work shows many individuals, men and women, engaged in their own activities and absorbed in their own lives. Whether measuring a skirt, walking down the street, or sleeping alongside a loom, the figures exist in the same space, but are nevertheless distant. Each is so consumed with their own individual doings that they do not look outside themselves; one man even pulls down his hat to avoid attracting attention. In addition to not considering each other, the figures do not recognize the viewer. Almost paradoxically, this lack of engagement enhances the painting’s familiarity and credibility. By conjuring the sense that the viewer is not a visitor, but rather an ordinary individual like the rest, Fierro allows the viewer to authentically take part in the life of the scene.

And this life is routine. Though the street is not necessarily calm—one seemingly hears the clucking rooster and feels the overbearing sunshine—Tailor Shop is imbued with linear orderliness. The windows, entryways, and the work itself are vertically-oriented; the street, buildings, and figures are positioned horizontally. Whether explicit or implied, the resulting rectangular forms engender feelings of repose and reliability and thus suggest that the painting channels classic conditions of lived experience. Fierro’s use of color also contributes to this impression of normalcy. Painting large areas of the piece with a beige wash, Fierro’s largely monotonous coloration emphasizes the commonality of both the setting itself as well as the events which occur within it. In the instances where brighter colors are present—such as the standing woman’s multi-colored attire, the man’s orange loom, and the green balcony up above—they are in balance; for instance, the seated man’s muted yellow shoes offset the standing woman’s intense yellow shawl. There is an almost natural dynamic between the people and the place; nothing is obtrusive and nothing is obstructive—everything simply belongs. Altogether, Fierro illustrates the setting of Tailor Shop as neither exciting nor exotic, but rather as genuine and real.

But Fierro’s work is more substantive than a simple documentation of a Peruvian street. Drawing inspiration from Peruvian life, Fierro combines social realism with gentle caricature and offers a moral commentary on local society.[3] Indicating the status of each figure, Tailor Shop critiques Peruvian socio-economic disparities. The standing woman having her skirt measured, whose dress characterizes her membership in the tapada land-holding class, is representative of the wealthy; the tailor kneeling, and doing the measuring, is representative of the working class.[4] The tailor’s body makes no effort to disguise the physical hardships of her manual labor. She is contorted: her back bent, her arms outstretched, and her neck craning upward. Conversely, the straightened posture of the wealthy woman encodes her elevated status, as the tailor is both literally and figuratively beneath her; in spite of this being her shop, the tailor has no power here. The dreariness of the tailor’s clothing is also telling—somewhat ironically, the individual whose profession involves altering fabrics for others must wear dull, gray fabrics herself. The wealthy woman’s body is also recoiled—she raises her right arm to her chest and shifts her weight to one foot—and her grimace communicates irritation. Following her gaze, the object of the wealthy woman’s disdain is somewhat ambiguous: she could be looking at the tethered rooster near her feet, but she could also be glaring at the tailor. Both circumstances reveal the wealthy woman’s internalized sense of superiority, but the latter is more grim; rather than an animal, her derision and disregard are now directed at a person.

The other figures of Tailor Shop further articulate the unfortunate and sympathetic situations of working-class and impoverished Peruvian people. The tailor shop’s entryway is flanked by two men who appear oddly alike: they wear similar clothing, they have similar hats. In addition to their physical similarities, both men almost fade into their respective backgrounds. Their predominant coloration of beige and gray emulates the painted tones of the buildings and the emotional tone of the street: common and inconsequential. Like extensions of the physical landscape, the men are indelible to this particular place but are simultaneously invisible and consequently forgettable. More invisible, though, are the women working within the confines of the tailor shop itself. Their bodies are represented only by an outline of gray: they lack individualizing color, they are completely obscured by shadow. Nevertheless, although these working women do not command attention, their placement is among the most central aspects of the scene. This centrality emphasizes the importance of the women, and thus the importance of workers altogether, for everything surrounds and subconsciously seems to emanate from them. Though their efforts are not recognized, the women continue to work in solitude; in a way, they weave the threads of Tailor Shop.

Through depicting the daily lives and circumstances of various social classes, as well as featuring typified settings and figures, Fierro’s Tailor Shop belongs to the larger tradition of costumbrismo.[5] This is the genre of art that most closely and consistently deals with the Latin American social environment of the nineteenth century, and whose paintings remain an important source of information for the study of nineteenth-century life.[6] However, costumbrismo is not necessarily the province of local and indigenous Peruvian artists. A number of European artists also engaged with the tradition: traveling throughout Latin America, painting scenes of popular costumes and characters, rendering the region “ripe for exploitation in the growing European market of travel literature and illustration.”[7] And German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas was one of such artists.[8]

Rugendas endeavored to paint the ‘local color’ of nineteenth-century Peruvian society—a place he perceived as static and unchanging. But, in his art, this supposedly ‘local color’ was “toned and hued to fit categories of an illustrative ‘other’ fashioned by the European colonial adventures of India, Africa, and the Middle East.”[9] This skewed perception is especially evident upon comparing Fierro’s and Rugendas’ representations of the tapadas women. Although both artists exaggerate the shapeliness of the women’s bodies, specifically in regard to how their skirts fall around their hips, their renditions must be evaluated against and differentiated by their respective backgrounds. On the one hand, as an insider to Peruvian culture, Fierro emphasizes the tapada of Tailor Shop’s sensuality in order to satirize her frivolity and juxtapose her wealth against the ordinariness of her surroundings and attendants. The woman is caricatured, but she is still a person. On the other hand, Rugendas reduces the tapada to her sexuality; his painting solely focuses on the woman’s body and neglects the relationship between her dress and her social standing (Fig. 2). Divorced from context and culture, she exists only as an immaterial form on a page.

Beyond demonstrating little effort to understand the complexities of the culture he placed himself in, Rugendas’ work fetishizes the female body, and categorizes Peruvian women as licentious—and even primitive.[10] His painting portrays the non-European world as an uncivilized place and renders the inhabitants of these places as incongruous to the supposed notion of modern and functional society. And his representation is not alone. Rugendas’ Tapada merely follows in a long history of European renditions of the Americas: Johannes Stradanus and Theodoor Galle’s Vespucci Discovering America (Fig. 3), Jan Mostaert’s Landscape of the Conquest of America (Fig. 4). These images claim to show the exact moments of European arrival in the New World, but refuse to offer a balanced perspective of events. The former falsely represents indigenous populations as monstrous, cannibalistic creatures; the latter imagines them as prehistoric people being forced into submission. Neither is nuanced and neither is authentic—but both are arguably canonical.

Like any system predicated upon hierarchies, the canon is only meaningful—and, perhaps, only powerful—insofar as it “excludes a large body of what are deemed noncanonical and, therefore, inferior materials.”[11] This realization has provoked within art history a series of inquiries centered on rethinking the canon. And since the canon is taught and learned—rather than passively inherited—one such inquiry entails re-evaluating approaches to art education. In an endeavor to diversify and energize the discipline, Yale University’s History of Art Department has redesigned its introductory course offerings to engage with different perspectives and move across different traditions. Though this curricular development necessitated the elimination of a popular survey course—’Introduction to the History of Art: Renaissance to the Present’—in Spring 2020, it nevertheless represents a vital renewal of the history of art. Of course, this renewal does not mean that traditional art historical perspectives have been replaced, but rather that additional ways of seeing and understanding artistic traditions are being introduced.[12]

As of yet, the future of the canon more broadly is indeterminate; it is unclear whether the path forward involves encompassing previously-marginalized works within the canon, or doing away with the privileged construction of the canonical order altogether. In either case, the history of art prides itself on being a global discipline—but only by recognizing the value of Fierro and other non-European artists can this ideal become reality.


Figure 1
Pancho Fierro, Tailor Shop, 1850, watercolor. Yale University Art Gallery.
Figure 2
Johann Moritz Rugendas, Tapada, 1842–1845, oil on paper.

Figure 3
Theodor Galle after Joannes Stradunus, Vespucci Discovering America, 1600, engraving.
vespucci discovering america
Figure 4
Jan Mostaert, Landscape of the Conquest of America, 1535, oil on panel. Rijksmuseum.
jan mostaert episode uit de verovering van amerikaScreen Shot 2020 11 17 at 12.51.35 PM

Works Cited

Camille, Michael, Zeynep Çelik, John Onians, Adrian Rifkin, and Christopher B.
Steiner. “Rethinking the Canon.” The Art Bulletin 78, no. 2 (1996): 198-217.doi:10.2307/3046172.

Fierro, Pancho. Tailor Shop. 1850. Watercolor. 24.5 × 19.7 cm. Yale University Art Gallery.

Galle, Theodor after Joannes Stradunus. Vespucci Discovering America. 1600. Engraving. 19 x 26.9cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mackay, Iain W. “Fierro, Pancho [Francisco].” Grove Dictionary of Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Majluf, Natalia. “Pancho Fierro.” In The Lima Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Carlos Aguirre and Charles F. Walker. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Mattos, Claudia. “Whither Art History?: Geography, Art Theory, and New Perspectives for an Inclusive Art History.” The Art Bulletin 96, no. 3 (2014): 259-64.

Mostaert, Jan. Landscape of the Conquest of America. 1535. Oil on panel. 86.5cm × 152.5cm. Rijksmuseum.

Pérez Salas, M. Esther C. “Costumbrismo.” Grove Dictionary of Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Poole, Deborah A. “A One-Eyed Gaze: Gender in 19th Century Illustration of Peru.” Dialectical Anthropology 13, no. 4 (1988): 333-64. Accessed April 2, 2020.

Rugendas, Johann Moritz. Tapada. 1842–1845. Oil on paper.

Schaedel, Richard P. “Paintings at an Exhibition: 1966 The Yale-Texas Exhibition of Latin American Art 1800-1965.” Latin American Research Review 1, no. 3 (1966): 91-104. Accessed April 2, 2020.

[1] Claudia Mattos, “Whither Art History?: Geography, Art Theory, and New Perspectives for an Inclusive Art History,” The Art Bulletin 96, no. 3 (2014): 259.

[2] M. Esther Pérez Salas C., “Costumbrismo,” 2018.

[3] Iain W. Mackay, “Fierro, Pancho [Francisco].” Grove Dictionary of Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[4] Deborah A. Poole, “A One-Eyed Gaze: Gender in 19th Century Illustration of Peru,” Dialectical Anthropology 13, no. 4 (1988): 334.

[5] M. Esther Pérez Salas C., “Costumbrismo,” Grove Dictionary of Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[6] Richard P. Schaedel, “Paintings at an Exhibition: 1966 The Yale-Texas Exhibition of Latin American Art 1800-1965,” Latin American Research Review 1, no. 3 (1966): 101.

[7] Poole, “A One-Eyed Gaze: Gender in 19th Century Illustration of Peru,” 359.

[8] Ibid., 333.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. 338.

[11] Christopher B. Steiner, “Rethinking the Canon,” The Art Bulletin 78, no. 2 (1996): 213.[12] Zeynep Çelik, “Rethinking the Canon,” The Art Bulletin 78, no. 2 (1996): 202.