REVIEW: Luisa Roldan by Catherine Hall-van den Elsen
This initial book in the groundbreaking new series Illuminating Women Artists is the first English-language monograph on the extraordinary Spanish Baroque sculptor Luisa Roldán.
Luisa Roldán (1652–1706), also known as La Roldana, was an accomplished Spanish Baroque artist, much admired during her lifetime for her exquisitely crafted and painted wood and terracotta sculptures. Roldán trained under her father and worked in Seville, Cádiz, and Madrid. She even served as sculptor to the royal chambers of two kings of Spain. Yet despite her great artistry and achievements, she has been largely forgotten by modern art history.
Written for art lovers of all backgrounds, this beautifully illustrated book offers an important perspective that has been missing—a deeper understanding of the opportunities, and the challenges, facing a woman artist in Roldán’s time. With attention to the historical and social dynamics of her milieu, this volume places Roldán’s work in context alongside that of other artists of the period, including Velázquez, Murillo, and Zurbarán, and provides much-needed insight into what life was like for this trailblazing artist of seventeenth-century Spain.
Dear Ms. Hall-van den Elsen,
The cover made me do it! Actually it really did as it immediately made me think of my terracotta Christmas nativity figurines made by Belenes Puig . “What is this?” I thought, “I must investigate.” Once I saw that the book was being published by Getty Publications, I knew I must read it.
So mid 17th century Spain and we’re talking about a female artist which – just wow. Luisa Roldan was from an artisan family and her father taught her what he knew. Luisa met her husband through his apprenticeship under her father and despite dad’s opposition to their marriage (since he would then lose her as a valuable member of his workshop), she petitioned Church authorities to be allowed to do so. You go girl! Sadly, like many artists dependent upon court patronage, Luisa died in poverty.
While Spanish society might publically adhere to the viewpoint that a woman’s place was in the home or convent, in reality the economic contributions of women helped grease the wheels of commerce both inside and outside the home. Women were dependent on their father’s or husband’s guild membership to practice their trades and often their work was subsumed into that of their family making their contributions hard to isolate. But essays, plays, and other literature that would have been widely available make it clear that not all viewed women as less intelligent or capable.
Lots of information about the events that were plaguing (literally) and shaping the viewpoints of residents and artists in Seville in the years before and after Luisa’s birth is included. Several works of art she might have seen in Churches or her own father’s workshop that would no doubt have influenced her growth as an artist are shown in beautiful color photographs. Sadly there is a dearth of written details of Luisa’s training beyond what she might be expected to have learned in her father’s workshop. As well, there is a lack of contracts, commissions or other proof that Luisa was the creator of some statues that are now attributed to her due to similarities of style with known works while some items, for which there is written proof and/or photographs, have been lost (many in the Spanish Civil War) over the centuries. But over three hundred years after they were created, elaborate floats made by Luisa and her husband for Seville’s Holy Week processions are still carried through the streets.
The book is lavishly filled with gorgeous photos of many of Luisa’s wood and terracotta works which are discussed and compared in detail. But not enough to make things boring. Since the Church and the devout Spanish Court were the main patrons, all of these are religiously themed. I have learned a lot about the sculptor, her world, and that women artists could and did forge professional careers in a world largely still run by men. B