Luisa Roldán

By Catherine Hall-van den Elsen

Getty Publications and Lund Humphries, 2021

Reviewed by Liya Okroshidze

The Getty’s new Illuminating Women Artists series aims to shed light on worthy women painters, sculptors, and other artists who have long been relegated to oblivion or have been viewed in contexts where men were central. Like the Neuf Preuses, the late medieval cycle of nine women belatedly introduced alongside the Neuf Preux to embody military virtue, women artists step onto equal footing with their male counterparts in the Getty’s project. Inaugurating the series is Luisa Roldán, on the early modern Spanish sculptor (1652– 1706) who specialized in polychromed wooden statues and small polychromed terracotta groups.

Author Catherine Hall-van den Elsen is perhaps the foremost expert on Luisa Roldán, and the Getty volume fully reflects her colossal erudition.[1] The author presents Luisa as a strong, independent woman from the very first lines of the introduction, opening with the nineteen-year-old’s statement of intent to marry despite her father ’s disapproval (11).[2]

It becomes clear over the course of the book, however, that even as she produced a large body of sculpture, Luisa was often forced to work within the spheres of the principal men in her life: her father, sculptor Pedro Roldán; her husband and collaborator, sculptor Luis Antonio de los Arcos; and her mostly male patrons (when they can be identified), although she also corresponded about her position as a court sculptor with the Spanish queen.

Hall-van den Elsen begins the first of her five chapters with a discussion of women in early modern Spain: their lives, their roles in society, and the opportunities they received to develop their talents. The author pays particular attention to two sixteenth-century treatises, Juan Luis Vives’s De Institutione Feminae Christianae (1524) and Luis de León’s La Perfecta Casada (1583), that addressed the place of a woman in society and the lifestyle she should lead. The first author, while accepting that women’s position in society was different from men’s, advocated for the education of girls. León, on the contrary, insisted that girls should receive only a primary education and that women’s principal duty was to marry and ensure their husband’s comfort in the house. Since no documentary evidence about Luisa is known from before the 1670s, Hall-van den Elsen reconstructs young Luisa’s experience in her father’s workshop in Seville based on known apprenticeship practices at the time: she would have learned the techniques for sculpting wood and, almost certainly, would have discussed contemporary Sevillian art as well as the Italian and Northern European prints circulating in the city. Luisa’s level of education reveals itself to an extent in later letters, which show that she was fully literate and wrote with “a confident hand, although not an elegant one” (22).

Luisa first figures in the historical record at nineteen, when she successfully petitioned to marry Luis Antonio, a fellow apprentice in her father’s studio, against Pedro’s will. The earliest documentary reference to Luisa as a sculptor is a note found in the head of a life-size wooden Ecce Homo statue in Cádiz Cathedral (1684). Significantly, the note also refers to Luisa’s spouse as her collaborator; they are believed to have worked together as sculptors on numerous projects, even ones for which only Luis Antonio signed the contract, including works from as early as the mid-1670s.

The book’s second chapter is devoted to sculpture in the early modern period in Seville and to the sociocultural environment in which Luisa’s creative process developed. Seville was an important trade center between the Old and New World, and its prosperity supported a strong demand for works of art, among them monumental church altarpieces as well as pasos, floats, commissioned by religious brotherhoods to carry in Holy Week processions. Such works often made a powerful emotional appeal to the viewer. Sevillian painter and theorist Francisco Pacheco, a censor for the Inquisition, urged artists to represent Biblical subjects faithfully (28–29). These factors helped to form a local artistic dialect of multimedia works incorporating polychromed and gilded sculpture, oil paintings, and architectural elements. One contributor to this artistic culture was Luisa’s father, Pedro, also a native of Seville. Hall-van den Elsen devotes a large section—too large, I would argue—to describing Pedro’s activities as a master in Seville. This section does serve to illustrate, though, that Luisa was involved even during her childhood in the cultural life of Seville and exposed to the creative interactions of her father with his fellow Sevillian artists, an environment that clearly influenced her.

Hall-van den Elsen comes to the personality and work of Luisa herself in chapter 3. The author explores Luisa’s activities as a sculptor in Seville, Cádiz, and elsewhere in Andalucía from the early 1670s through the late 1680s. Many works have no written evidence of Luisa’s authorship, and in such cases, Hall-van den Elsen must rely on comparative and stylistic analysis to support attributions to the artist, some as independent works, others as collaborations with her husband. Identifying who was responsible for the polychrome painting is difficult; for some later sculptures, at least, the painter was Luisa’s brother-in-law Tomás de los Arcos. One of the first works that can likely be considered exclusively Luisa’s—again, though, only on stylistic grounds—is St. Michael Smiting the Devil (1675–80). Hall- van den Elsen provides an excellent critical analysis of the work, demonstrating that Luisa developed her own language while adhering both to the realism of her father’s style and to the recommendation by Francisco Pacheco that the devil be shown already subjugated (46). The author points out features that continued to characterize

Luisa’s style throughout her career: thin, arched eyebrows; a long, straight nose; and a small, slightly open mouth. In some works of the period, Hall-van den Elsen notes, Luisa could be bold in her vision of religious subjects, as in a lost wooden sculpture group of Mary Magdalene visited by an angel (1680– 88). The artist portrayed the Magdalene emaciated and visibly helpless, lying on stones as if breathing her last breath. For this statue’s context, the chapel of the orphanage at Cádiz, Luisa was not afraid to depart from traditional iconography.

The move of Luisa and her family to Madrid, seat of the Spanish court, in 1688 provides material for the fourth chapter. The Madrid period represented a new stage in the artist’s career, one in which wooden statuary gave way to small-format polychrome terracotta sculpture. The new medium and scale allowed for more intimate compositions that were intended for quiet, meditative contemplation and personal communication with God within royal and elite domestic settings. These groups may be exclusively by Luisa’s hand, since her husband’s name does not appear on works of this kind. Among them are numerous images of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child surrounded by plump- faced cherubim, sometimes within larger narrative groups, as in two sculptures of the Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1691; 1691–1705). Alternatively, the Christ Child can appear without his mother, holding the hand of the infant St. John the Baptist or carrying the cross as the Niño Nazareno. Perhaps in part because Luisa had observed children closely in her own life (records indicate that she and Luis Antonio had seven children, of whom three survived infancy), she depicted children’s facial expressions and movements with great sweetness and liveliness. She thus moved confidently in creative directions that her father had never explored.

The final stage of Luisa’s work in Madrid, after the arrival of the Bourbon king Felipe V in 1701, was very fruitful. Luisa continued to work in terracotta and produced her last dated large-scale wooden statue, an adult Jesus the Nazarene (c. 1701). She enjoyed more reliable payments from the royal court, gained the patronage of nobleman Juan de Dios de Silva y Mendoza, and received the title Accademica di Mérito from the Roman Accademia di San Luca. She also created her most unusual sculptural group, the Cavalcade of the Magi (c. 1701), comprising twenty-three small polychrome terracotta figures on individual pedestals of the splendidly dressed Three Kings and members of their entourage traveling to bow to the Christ Child (perhaps depicted as part of a separate, unidentified Nativity group). Still, despite her professional successes, Luisa declared in her last testament that she could not afford to pay for her funeral. A few years later, the same fate befell her husband, Luis Antonio.

The abundance of information about the artist’s father in the early chapters of Luisa Roldán contrasts sharply with the lack of attention directed toward the legacy of Luisa herself at the end of the volume. One wonders, for example, what became of her surviving children: Did any adopt the profession of their mother and father? There is also no line in the study that would trace Luisa’s influence on more recent masters, including the artists sometimes described as her followers: José Montes de Oca, a pupil of Luisa’s father;[3] Pedro Duque Cornejo, Luisa’s nephew, also educated in Pedro’s workshop;[4] and Cristóbal Ramos, another a native of Seville, some of whose work was previously attributed to Luisa.[5] Somewhat unexpectedly, Hall-van den Elsen gives a historiographical overview in the last chapter. Such material typically, of course, appears at the beginning of the study, anticipating the questions that arise from the reader (particularly from specialists) concerning source materials about the artist and studies by other scholars.

Hall-van den Elsen’s study is, with no doubt, a most valuable contribution to the history of Spanish seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century wooden and terracotta sculpture, even as it provides an impetus to find answers to the remaining questions about Luisa Roldán and her legacy. Endowed with eighty-eight illustrations of excellent quality, it reveals the technical mastery and distinctive style of this talented woman sculptor as well as her determination to persevere in her chosen profession. Luisa Roldán  is thus a fitting start to the Getty’s larger project of reclaiming women’s names within art history.


Source: Women’s Art Journal. Vol. 43, No 2


[1]Hall-van den Elsen’s other studies on the artist include Fuerza e Intimismo: Luisa Roldán, Escultora (1652–1706) (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2018), and “Life at Court: Luisa Roldán in Madrid 1689–1706,” in Women Artists in the Early Modern Courts of Europe,1450–1700, ed. Tanja L. Jones (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021), 161–86. Also on Luisa Roldán, see Casey Gardonio-Foat, “Daughters of Seville: Workshops and Women Artists in Early Modern Andalucía,” Woman’s Art Journal 31, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2010): 21–27.

[2] Hall-van den Elsen employs the artist’s first name throughout the book to differentiate her from her father, Pedro (8).

[3] Antonio Torrejón Díaz, El escultor José Montes de Oca (Seville: Excelentísima Diputación Provincial de Sevilla, 1987).

[4] Gardonio-Foat, “Daughters of Seville,” 21–27.

[5] Jesús Porres Benavides, “La técnica en el escultor Cristóbal Ramos (1725–1799),” UCOARTE: Revista de Teoría e Historia del Arte 8 (2019): 95–108.


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