Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 1, 2023
Catherine Hall-van den Elsen Luisa Roldán Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2021. 144 pp.; 83 color ills.; 4 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (9781606067321)

This book examines the all too unusual case of the sculptor Luisa Roldán (1652–1706), who successfully navigated the challenges of being a woman artist in early modern Spain. The role of women in art throughout Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has been under-researched until recently. Spanish art too, has remained less well known or studied in the Anglophone world, compared with Italian art. Sculpture in Spain, which in this period was generally polychromed, has only lately begun to attract the attention it deserves. Catherine Hall’s book provides a welcome new contribution to all these fields. In it, she follows the artistic career of this remarkable sculptor, who achieved recognition and even royal patronage in a male-dominated system. Luisa learned her art and developed her skills in the workshop of her father Pedro Roldán, a prominent sculptor in Seville. Her situation there would have been common among the female family members of artists. To have become an established sculptor in her own right, with a life and career of her own, was extraordinary for the period and attests to her talent and strength of character, as outlined here.

The author’s quote from Griselda Pollock, early in the book, is certainly apt in its reference to “the subtle negotiation of what is thinkable or beyond the limits, dominant definitions and social practices” of the time (9). Luisa Roldán’s career as an artist, and her fame, depended on decisions she took about her life early on. As Catherine Hall observes, “many assumptions about the lives of women in early modern Spain are challenged upon learning the circumstances of Luisa’s marriage” (11). Pedro Roldán had several daughters, of whom Luisa was the most talented. Her father would have wanted her to stay to help in the workshop. There, however, she could never have been formally acknowledged as an independent sculptor, in the way that male apprentices were, and could not have become a member of a guild. Members of a workshop were not even named in contracts, as a rule, where only the master involved in the commission would be identified. If she had stayed and obeyed her father rather than marrying against his will, Luisa Roldán would have been far less likely to have enjoyed fame as an admired and accomplished artist. But instead, she married a young apprentice, Luis Antonio de los Arcos, after appealing to the church for permission to marry without paternal consent. She also combined her career as a sculptor with her role as mother to several children.

The book follows a largely biographical framework but also provides much valuable context and the discussion of many pertinent, wider issues. It begins with a chapter on Women in Early Modern Spain, which references some of the popular treatises of the time on women and their education and marriage, such as those by Juan Luis Vives and Fray Luis de León. The norms or ideals these writers sought to promote serve to highlight the confidence and determination required by Luisa in forging her own divergent path. Chapter 2, Sculpture in Seville, examines sculpture in the context of religious art and its patronage in the city including, notably, the involvement of many of the city’s finest artists in the commission for the Hospital of Charity in the 1670s. Among these were the painters Murillo and Juan de Valdés Leal, as well as Luisa’s father and, as the author argues, their collaboration on such an important artwork is likely to have impacted her own artistic development. The lens widens in the third chapter, though the focus continues to be on Andalucía, in the south of Spain, as Luisa began to build a career and reputation with her husband during the later 1670s and into the 1680s. They obtained commissions for sculptural compositions for the floats carried on the pasos during religious festivals such as Holy Week in Seville, as well as figures for churches in Cádiz. Chapter 4 follows the couple to Madrid in the late 1680s, a move that offered both challenges and opportunities. Luisa and her husband demonstrated an ability to adapt to a new market, working in new materials and producing a different scale of artworks. As Catherine Hall explains, these occurred as a result of the establishment of noble houses and the expansion of the merchant class in the capital, many of whom were building large houses and private chapels for which they sought suitable decoration. The couple recognized the potential of terracotta rather than wood as an appropriate material for works of a smaller scale to suit their new clientele. These quieter, devotional works representing the holy family and the saints were seen as more appropriate to the more intimate settings of domestic interiors. In Madrid, Luisa also petitioned the court for work and recognition, with some success, including entitlement to sign herself ”Escultora de cámara” to Charles II, and “Escultora de la Casa Real” to his successor Philip V.

The last brief chapter on Luisa’s critical fortunes over the centuries provides much food for thought. The sculptor was fortunate indeed to have been the contemporary of the biographer of Spanish artists Antonio Palomino, who knew her. He gave a brief but sympathetic account of her life and work, which praised her talent as equal to her father’s, even if he also felt compelled to emphasize that her feminine virtues had not been sacrificed to her artistic ambition and achievements. She was one of twenty women among the 200 artists covered in the lives of the eminent painters and sculptors of Palomino’s El Parnaso español (1724). More recently, Luisa Roldán’s name has, at last, become more firmly embedded in the canon, through an exhibition of Roldana at the Alcázar in Seville in 2007 and, the following year, a book in Spanish by the author of the present book. However, it is apparent that the case of Luisa Roldán continues to raise many problems for art historians. For example, as the author observes, Luisa’s name can still be found more frequently in studies of women artists than in a broader context. Hall’s book reminds us of the need to keep questioning the exclusion of women from the male-dominated artistic canon. It also asks how women artists could conform to the rules of a patriarchal ideology and, at the same time, develop the ability to produce artworks of exceptional quality? 

In light of these questions, the book will, of course, be relevant to students and scholars of women artists and those interested in women in the early modern period generally. Many of the social issues involved here remain all too familiar today. These, and the insights into life in a family workshop, will likewise be valuable for the growing number of art historians and technical art historians engaged in the study of artists’ training, workshops, and artistic practice. There is much here, too, that will interest those who study the history of attribution and documentation of artworks. Attributions continue to be problematic in much Spanish art of this period, and particularly so in the case of both women artists and sculpture, for reasons outlined in Hall’s book. Signed works by Luisa Roldán appear to be unusual, though we can hope that increased technical examination of her sculpture might reveal other examples of documentation of her authorship, similar to that of the note on a piece of paper, which was apparently found inside the head of an Ecce Homo of 1684 in Córdoba in the 1980s.

There is much here to counteract the minority-interest category that Spanish Baroque polychromed sculpture might still be shelved under by many. The high-quality illustrations make the publication attractive and enable useful study of the materials, techniques, and development of the sculptor’s style. Above all, they show the refinement and delicacy of her art. The writing is clear and flows naturally, making the book remarkably accessible.

Hilary Macartney
Stirling Maxwell Research Project, School of Culture & Creative Arts, University of Glasgow