Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Woman Ahead of Her Time: Luisa Roldán


Portrait of Luisa Roldánescultora de Carlos II
Antonio Rotondò y Tabasco (1808 - 1879), Spanish, 1862,
engraving in Histoire descriptive, artistique et pittoresque du monastère royal de St. Laurent vulgairement dit de l'Escurial... (Descriptive, Artistic, and Picturesque History of the Royal Monastery), Madrid, 1863*
Research Library, The Getty Research Institute, 88-B6694
Photograph:  The J. Paul Getty Museum Web site 

March 2017 is Women's History Month.  This is the month women all over the world celebrate female achievements.  What better time to focus on Luisa Ignacio Roldán (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), the first recorded female sculptor in Spain. Although relatively unknown today, she was famous in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century.  

Luisa Roldán (1652 - 1704), called La Roldana, is the only female artist mentioned by her contemporary, the painter and art historian Antonio Palomino (1656 - 1726) in his An Account of the Lives and Works of the Most Eminent Spanish Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Palomino's book, first published in Spain in 1724, was Spain's equivalent to Giorgio Vasari's (1511 - 1574) Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects  (1550) which had initiated the genre of artists' biographies.  During the eighteenth century, Palomino's work was translated into English, French and German. Luisa Roldán's inclusion was significant.

Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Polychromer: Tomás de Los Arcos (Spanish, born 1661),
Saint Ginés de la Jara, about 1692, 
polychromed wood (pine and cedar) with glass eyes, 
69 1/4 x 36 3/16 x 29 1/8 in.  (175.9 x 91.9 x 74 cm)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
Photograph:  The J. Paul Getty Museum Web site 

La Roldana had her own workshop, first producing life-size or larger than life-size wooden sculptures and later small polychrome terracotta compositions for private devotion.  The latter became her speciality and she was the first artist in seventeenth-century Spain to make them. 

Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
The Entombment of Christ, 1700 -1701, 
polychrome terracotta, 
overall: 19 1/2 x 26 x 17 in. (49.5 x 66 x 43.2 cm)
Photograph:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

She was appointed court sculptor to two Spanish kings:   Charles II and his successor Philip V.  The appointments were another first for a female sculptor.  A look at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2016 acquisition of the artist's The Entombment of Christ makes clear her talent.  Pain, suffering and grief are intensely rendered in a tableau vivant format evoking emotional response from viewers.  The work was probably given by La Roldana to Philip V as a gift prior to her court appointment. How did this female artist come to such proficiency at a time when women were normally prohibited from study at art academies or schools or apprentice to a master artist?  

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, female artists commonly received their training from their artist father or close family member.**  Lavinia Fontana (1552 - 1614), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 - 1656), Elisabetta Sirani (1638 - 1665) and Josefa de Óbidos (1630 - 1684) are examples of painters who were taught by their painter fathers.***  Luisa was no different. Her father, the successful Sevillian sculptor Pedro Roldán (1624 - 1699), provided instruction.  She probably entered his studio at the age of 12 or 13.

Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Detail of The Entombment of Christ, 1700 -1701, 
polychrome terracotta, 
overall: 19 1/2 x 26 x 17 in. (49.5 x 66 x 43.2 cm)
Photograph:  Artstor Web site

Unlike other female artists, Luisa achieved an accomplished command of the human anatomy.  Her figures were astoundingly realistic which implied a familiarity with the naked body.  Female artists were generally barred from the study of nudes.  Luisa had an advantage of training in a sculptor's studio where nude models were more likely in use than a painter's workshop. Thus, exposed to live models which included male nudes, her education would have included something normally reserved for male apprentices.  


Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Detail of The Entombment of Christ, 1700 -1701, 
polychrome terracotta, 
overall: 19 1/2 x 26 x 17 in. (49.5 x 66 x 43.2 cm)
Photograph:  Artstor Web site

Her mastery of the human anatomy is apparant everywhere even from viewpoints not meant to be seen.  

Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Detail of The Entombment of Christ, 1700 -1701, 
polychrome terracotta, 
overall: 19 1/2 x 26 x 17 in. (49.5 x 66 x 43.2 cm)
Photograph:  Artstor Web site

These small works were made to be looked at from the front.  Yet,  from the rear or sides, her figures denote a robust sense of form.  They maintain a perception of reality.


Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Detail of The Entombment of Christ, 1700 -1701, 
polychrome terracotta, 
overall: 19 1/2 x 26 x 17 in. (49.5 x 66 x 43.2 cm)
Photograph:  Artstor Web site

Seville was a center of art production since the sixteenth century when the city flourished by holding the monopoly of trade with new world goods from America.  By the seventeenth century, Spain's empire was declining along with its economic power.  Nevertheless, the arts in Seville continued to thrive due to a Catholic revival.  

The metropolis was filled with churches, monasteries and convents.  These required religious art and kept artists, especially sculptors, busy.  Statues were in demand for the many saint days and Holy Week when wooden figures and groups were carried on platforms in processionals throughout the city streets.  Unlike Italy where marble and bronze were the preferred sculpture medium, Sevillian sculptors worked primarily in wood.  Labor was divided. Sculptors carved heads, hands and limbs. Polychromers painted the pieces.  Gilders embellished the work.****  

Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Polychromer: Tomás de los Arcos (Spanish, born 1661),
Detail of Saint Ginés de la Jara, about 1692, 
polychromed wood (pine and cedar) with glass eyes, 
69 1/4 x 36 3/16 x 29 1/8 in.  (175.9 x 91.9 x 74 cm)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
Photograph:  The J. Paul Getty Museum Web site

The naturalistic  imagery was intended to elicit a strong response in worshippers - a call to piety, prayer and devotion as mandated by the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563).  

Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Polychromer: Tomás de Los Arcos (Spanish, born 1661),
Detail of Saint Ginés de la Jara, about 1692, 
polychromed wood (pine and cedar) with glass eyes, 
69 1/4 x 36 3/16 x 29 1/8 in.  (175.9 x 91.9 x 74 cm)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
Photograph:  The J. Paul Getty Museum Web site

The seventeenth-century artists of Seville may be categorized as Counter-Reformation artists in that their art adhered to the Catholic Church's response to the Protestant Reformation.  

Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Detail of The Entombment of Christ, 1700 -1701, 
polychrome terracotta, 
overall: 19 1/2 x 26 x 17 in. (49.5 x 66 x 43.2 cm)
Photograph:  Artstor Web site

Art was to engage viewers in a personal religious manner that was based on the bible.  It should encourage an emotional reaction in the beholder who on viewing would empathize with the suffering of Christ, saints and martyrs - those who suffered for the sake of human salvation.    


Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Detail of The Entombment of Christ, 1700 -1701, 
polychrome terracotta, 
overall: 19 1/2 x 26 x 17 in. (49.5 x 66 x 43.2 cm)

It was in this atmosphere that Luisa developed her art. She must have been a feisty lady judging from what is known of her life.  At 19 years of age, against her father's wishes, she ran off and married one of his apprentices, Luis Antonio Navarro de los Arcos.  Antonio was said to have been a mediocre sculptor.  He never completed the required years of apprenticeship necessary to set up an independent workshop.  His economic prospects were dim.  

The couple initially lived with Antonio's family.  They had children right away.  Four died at an early age; a son and daughter lived till adulthood.  She had her own workshop where Antonio assisted with sculpting as well as marketing Luisa and her work. Antonio's brother, Tomás de los Arcos, a painter, worked as a polychromer.  There is some indication that later in life Antonio engaged in commercial trade but he does not seem to have ever been an independent "breadwinner."  

In 1687, Luisa and her family left Seville for the port city of Cádiz. A commission from a convent for a statue of the Ecco Homo initiated the move.  Seville had fallen on hard times and Cádiz, which was prospering, offered more work possibilities. In Cádiz, Luisa had some success.  Yet, a year later, she went to Madrid in the hope of securing a court appointment.  This she obtained in 1692 but it did not bring a secure income.  

The king, Charles II, was late in paying Luisa's salary. Petitions survive which document her pleas for payment. In 1697 she began to receive rumuneration but the king died three years later. She had to begin again to position herself for another court appointment with the new king, Philip V.  Although she succeeded in 1701, her money problems continued.  By this time, she was known for polychrome terracotta sculptures.  

Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
The Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalene, c. 1690,
polychrome terra-cotta,
overall: 13 3/4 x 17 1/2 x 9 13/16 in. (30.5 x 44.5 x 25 cm)
The Hispanic Society of AmericaNew York
currently on loan to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photograph:  David St.-Lescaux Web site

Luisa began to make her terracotta pieces when she arrived in Madrid.  Perhaps she developed her work in clay since there was not much demand for carved wooden figures.  Madrid's religious processionals were not a dominant activity for the city.


Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Detail of The Entombment of Christ, 1700 -1701, 
polychrome terracotta, 
overall: 19 1/2 x 26 x 17 in. (49.5 x 66 x 43.2 cm)

Her terracottas were probably made freehand since each piece is quite individualized.  If she did use molds, she personalized each one which would have taken just as long as working only by hand. 


Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Detail of The Entombment of Christ, 1700 -1701, 
polychrome terracotta, 
overall: 19 1/2 x 26 x 17 in. (49.5 x 66 x 43.2 cm)

These works were in demand by private patrons but the nature of this output could not bring in much money. Terracottas, clay objects, along with wooden statues, were not ranked high in the hierarchy of artwork mediums.  Be that as it may, Luisa produced highly affecting work that was and is greatly admired.  

Luisa Roldán, called La Roldana (Seville 1652 - 1704 Madrid), 
Detail of The Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalene****, c. 1690,
polychrome terra-cotta,
overall: 13 3/4 x 17 1/2 x 9 13/16 in. (30.5 x 44.5 x 25 cm)
currently on loan to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photograph:  Pinterest Web site from DeBeer on Flickr

La Roldana struggled financially most of her life. Time and time again, she was on the verge of extreme poverty.   In her last few years, her workshop was busy.  She may have finally achieved some monetary security.  Yet, when she died in Madrid in 1706, she was buried in a pauper's grave. This may have been the consequence of women's inability to have ownership at this time.  The reason for such a final resting place is still unanswered.  Sadly, she received a special award in recognition of her talents from a prominent art academy in Rome just when she passed away.*****  

Her legacy is not only of an artistic nature, but also of a woman determined to work and succeed in a male dominated world.  As a woman, her impediments were many.  Alas, women today still struggle.

You can see Luisa Roldán's terracotta The Entombment of Christ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gallery 550, along with two other terracotta groups by the artist, The Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene and The Repose in Egypt, on loan from the Hispanic Society of America.  

*This is a presumed portrait of the artist.  The engraving is from Antonio Rotondo's Histoire, descriptive, artistique et pittoresque, du Monastère Royal de St.-Laurent, vulgairement dit de l'escorial.  Nine editions of the Histoire, descriptive, artistique et picturesque... were published between 1862 and 1863 in French and Spanish (Historia descriptiva, artística y pintoresca del Real Monasterio de S. Lorenzo, conmunmente llamado del Escorial).  The author was not only a writer and historian but also a painter, playwright and dentist.  For those whose language skills are weak, the book's title in English is Descriptive, artistic and picturesque history of the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo commonly called the Escorial.  There is a facsimile reproduction (ISBN: 84-7120-070-8) of the Madrid, Imp. de Eusebio Aguado, 1862 edition.

**A renown exception to this was the Italian painter Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535 - 1625).  Born in Cremona in north central Italy to a minor aristocratic family, Sofonisba studied art with local artists.  Her talent and fame led to an invitation to work for the Spanish court in Madrid.  She became art tutor and lady-in-waiting to the Spanish queen and painter to the king.  Sofonisba is praised by Giorgio Vasari (1511 - 1574) in his Lives of the Most Eminent Architects, Painters and Sculptors (1550).  

***The artists mentioned are all Italian with the exception of Josefa de Óbidos (1630 - 1684), a Seville born Portuguese painter.  Her father, Baltazar Gomes Figueira, a painter from Óbidos, Portugal, is said to have gone to Seville, Spain in the 1620s to improve his painting technique.  Seville was a famous center of artistic production. There he met and married a Spanish woman. Josefa was the result of this union. Josefa's godfather was the Sevillian painter Francisco de Herrera the Elder.  By 1634, Figueira and family were back in Óbidos. 

****For an excellent video on the making of a Spanish polychrome sculpture, see Making a Spanish Polychrome Sculpture, produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

*****I am indebted to Stephanie A. McClure for her help in clarifying some points in my text and for her "The Terracottas of Luisa Roldán in The Hispanic Society of America," Masters of Arts Thesis, Hunter College of the City University of New York, 2008.

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