The colorful career of Luisa Roldán | Apollo Review
This review of Luisa Roldan by Catherine Hall-van den Elsen (Lund Humphries) was published in the November 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
The publication of Catherine Hall-van den Elsen’s monograph on the Spanish sculptor Luisa Roldán (1652–1706) is cause for celebration. Not only is this the first study in English, but it is also the first of a new series, Female Illuminating Artists, intended to show, according to its editors Marilyn Dunn and Andrea Pearson, how early modern women “negotiated and sometimes resisted structural constraints in the visual arts”. “La Roldana”, as Luisa is known in Spain, began her career in Seville, carving some of the spectacular polychrome wooden altarpieces and pasos (floats) paraded throughout Andalusia during Holy Week. But it was his smaller, delicately colored terracottas – anticipating some of the devotional porcelain produced by Meissen some 50 years later – that brought him fame at the court of Madrid towards the end of his short life.
Hall-van den Elsen depicts Luisa’s native Seville at the height of the Counter-Reformation, with churches, religious orders, brotherhoods and merchants eager for Christ figures and popular saints and martyrs. It also provides an excellent introduction to the technique of polychrome sculpture. Half a century earlier, Seville had been the birthplace of Spanish naturalism, with sculptors such as Juan Martínez Montañés and painters such as Diego Velázquez working individually and together to bring Christian history to life and elicit an emotional response from the faithful. .
Luisa’s father, the sculptor Pedro Roldán, was one of the leaders of the next generation which also included Bartolomé Murillo, Juan de Valdés Leal and the lesser known Flemish sculptor José de Arce. Pedro ran a lively workshop in which Luisa was one of many trainees, helping to produce, for example, the magnificent Entombment at the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville. However, Luisa’s gender disqualified her from being officially recognized as a freelance sculptor and prevented her from applying for guild membership. It was in her father’s studio that Luisa met Luis Antonio de los Arcos, her future husband and artistic/business partner. Hall-van den Elsen’s book opens with an excerpt from a proceeding in 1671 before the ecclesiastical tribunal of Seville, where Luisa was legally obliged to seek permission for a marriage that her father opposed. This statement suggests a strength of character that no doubt contributed to her appointment, some 20 years later, as the first female sculptor to the King of Spain.
For Luisa, breastfeeding and caring for children meant time away from the studio – there was also the grief of losing several toddlers. As a woman, she was not allowed to sign contracts and this, along with her exclusion from the guild records, means that we know little about her professional life. The first mention of her in connection with a sculpture is in a note found inside a Ecce Homo in the Cathedral of Cádiz and dated 1684, which states: “This work was made by the hands of the esteemed artist Doña Luisa Roldán in the company of her husband Luis Antonio de los Arcos”. Based on this note and a few other mentions in official documents, it is likely that Luisa worked alongside Luis Antonio after he left his father’s house in 1671. However, the assumption made by Hall-van den Elsen and many others – apparently based on Luisa’s later success in Madrid – that she was the main sculptor of the Ecce Homo and other characters commissioned in the name of Luis Antonio is problematic. the Ecce Homo closely conforms to the style associated with the workshop of Pedro Roldán of which Luisa and Luis Antonio were products. In what sometimes appears as circular reasoning, the same assumption has led to other attributions involving works for which no documentation exists. These works all date from a period when Pedro Roldán and others were also producing works in a very similar style. As the Sevillian scholar Alfonso Pleguezuelo recently wrote, there are “a large number of works of dubious attribution that continue to give a confused vision of his authentic production”.
The first existing work signed by Luisa alone is a terracotta Rest on the Flight into Egypt which bears the inscription on its front edge: ‘D LUISA ROLDÁN FEB 1691’. Three years earlier, Luisa and Luis Antonio had moved to Madrid to seek the patronage of Spanish monarchs and benefit from a larger market. In 1692, she was named Escultora de Cámara (Sculptor of the Chamber) by the king and signed another work, the Saint Michael striking the devil in polychrome wood, at the Royal Monastery of El Escorial. Although Hall-van den Elsen acknowledges the lack of documentation for many of the works included in her book, it might have been helpful for her to start with signed pieces like this, which are unmistakably by Luisa alone.
the Rest on the Flight into Egypt was one of many similar works that Luisa would produce over the next 15 years. The finished works in terracotta were very unusual, but, like the early 15th-century Florentine figures of the Madonna and Child, Luisa’s sculptures met the demand for intimate, beautifully colored devotional works. They could also be made without a large workshop. Not only were Luisa’s terracottas relatively small, but the existence of several versions of the same composition suggests that they may have been made using molds (a possibility first raised by Holly Trusted ). The number of rooms she seems to have completed in a short time supports this hypothesis – more than 80 for the palace alone, as she wrote to the king in 1701.
The story of Luisa Roldán is full of paradoxes. Despite her success, she died in poverty. Early 18th-century art historian Antonio Palomino remembered her as an “immortal”, but was not the subject of a solo exhibition until 2007. Hall-van den Elsen makes an important contribution to the existing bibliography, only part of which is included at the end of the book, and to raising the profile of Roldán’s enchanting terracottas, which deserve a catalog on their own.
Luisa Roldan by Catherine Hall-van den Elsen is published by Lund Humphries.
Excerpt from the November 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.