Catherine Hall-van den Elsen, author of the inaugural Illuminating Women Artists  volume on Spanish Sculptor Luisa Roldán, reflects on the motivations behind her book and why Luisa Roldán deserves to be back in the spotlight... 


San Ginés de la Jara, 1692


This book, the first in the Illuminating Women Artists series published by Lund Humphries and Getty Publications, introduces Luisa Roldán, a woman of the artisan class who lived in early modern Spain. An extraordinary sculptor, she was one of a number of female artists and writers of the period whose reduced visibility in history books has impeded the broader recognition that their talent deserves. 

My fascination with Luisa Roldán began as an undergraduate student when I first encountered her delicate terracotta sculptures and the compelling life-sized works that she sculpted in wood. I was intrigued by this little-known woman, and surprised that information about her was so hard to find. I soon began the challenge of reconstructing her life, building on scarce documentation and uncertain attributions.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, whose use of family names varied throughout their lives, Luisa and all her siblings used her father’s family name, so when writing about her it was necessary to use their given names to distinguish the various sculptors who used the name Roldán. The use of a given rather than a family name is a practice found in recent biographies of other women artists of the early modern period who shared their father’s family name.


The Education of the Virgin, 1680–8


This book describes the story of a singular figure in early modern Spain, a young woman who charted a life path beyond her family’s experience and expectations. Her life illustrates the challenges she faced while making her way in a man’s world: her fortune dependent on the vagaries of society and court systems. We trace how, as a working woman in a society that is popularly represented as restrictive, Luisa found a way of living within her society’s socio-cultural boundaries that allowed her to produce sculptures whose power and complexity belie the traditional image of the unassuming daughter, wife and mother. She married a man of her choosing, moved cities, wrote letters to two Spanish kings and a pope. Although Spain’s dominant national ideology privileged male authority through its laws and religious tradition, Luisa found ways for her talent to be recognised and to produce beautiful sculpture while maintaining her reputation as a humble and devout woman.

Luisa’s large works in wood represent significant figures in Roman Catholic doctrine, their form acknowledging and progressing the Andalucían heritage that she learned in her father’s Sevillian workshop. Most of these remain in the churches for which they were commissioned in Seville, Cadiz, and the monastery of El Escorial. A small number are known in North America, including the exceptional San Ginés in the Getty museum in Los Angeles. In the second half of her career Luisa also worked in terracotta, developing new products for a domestic, devotional market that focussed on themes associated with the Virgin Mary and the Holy Family. Her terracotta work can be found in the National Museum of Sculpture in Valladolid, Seville’s Museo de Bellas Artes and a number of North American museums (Education of the Virgin, Blanton Museum, Austin, Texas) as well as many church and private collections in Spain.

I am grateful to the staff of Lund Humphries whose support enabled this volume to communicate the story of an unarguably resilient woman - one of the great sculptors of the Spanish Golden Age.


Luisa Roldán by Catherine Hall-van den Elsen is available direct from Lund Humphries HERE and from Getty Publications if you are in North America.

Find out more about the Illuminating Women Artists series in this BLOGPOST by commissioning editor Erika Gaffney. 



Luisa Roldán, San Ginés de la Jara, 1692, polychromed wood, 176 x 92 x 74 cm (69 ¼ x 36 ¼ x 29 1/8 in), J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content program.

Luisa Roldán, The Education of the Virgin, 1680–8, polychromed wood, 76 x 63 x 43 cm (29 7/8 x 24 ¾ x 17 in), Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Open access.