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La Roldana's Royal Commission: The Making of a Polychrome Sculpture

At the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center Opening February 17, 2009

September 9, 2008

LOS ANGELES—Luisa Roldán (1652–1706) was one of the most important and prolific sculptors working in Europe in the second half of the 17th century. Although her name is not widely recognized today, Roldán, later affectionately known as “La Roldana,” had a formative influence on the development of Spanish sculpture as the court sculptor for Charles II. Opening at the Getty Center on February 17, 2009 La Roldana’s Royal Commission: The Making of a Polychrome Sculpture will highlight Roldán’s masterpiece Saint Ginés de la Jara (1692)—one of the most prized works in the Getty’s European sculpture collection and a favorite among visitors—to exemplify Roldana’s vigorous and masterful carving and to examine the intricate process of polychromy.

Luisa Roldán achieved the utmost success in her profession, even being appointed court sculptor to two kings over the course of her life. The daughter of a successful sculptor named Pedro Roldán, Luisa began working in the family workshop in Seville along with her siblings at a young age. It was in her father’s workshop that she met her future husband, Luis Antonio de los Arcos.  Eventually, both artists left the workshop to strike out on their own, and soon after commissions began to arrive.  A very pregnant Luisa Roldan decided the time was right to audition for a position at the Royal court in Madrid and in 1692 she was appointed royal sculptor to the court by King Charles II (r. 1665–1700). Her position was renewed by the next sovereign, King Philip V (r. 1700–1746), and she carried the title Royal Sculptor until her death in 1706.

La Roldana's central focus will be the Getty’s Saint Ginés de la Jara, an outstanding example of the artist’s carved figures, which dates to 1692, the year of her court appointment. The figure is Saint Ginés de la Jara, today a little known saint, standing with outstretched arms in a richly brocaded robe with rosy cheeks and shining eyes. This work typifies Spanish Baroque art of the time, which sought to make Catholicism more accessible to believers through life-size, devotional cult statues carved in a wood and painted to achieve lifelike results.

This sculpture was carved by Roldán from pine, Mediterranean Cyprus, and Spanish cedar and polychromed by her brother-in-law, Tomás de los Arcos. The word “polychromy” refers to the art of employing many colors in decoration and is derived from the Greek “poly” (many) and “chroma” (color). To depict the rich embroidery of the figure’s robe, de los Arcos used the Spanish technique of estofado—which entails scratching through one decorative layer to reveal the layer below. On Saint Gines, the garment was first covered in gold leaf and painted over with brown paint, then incised with a stylus to reveal the gold underneath in repeating foliate patterns. The exhibition will feature a didactic component illustrating the technique and process involved in creating polychrome sculpture. It will also explore the communal workshop tradition, which was pivotal to La Roldana’s formation as a sculptor.

The J. Paul Getty Museum’s focus exhibition La Roldana's Royal Commission: The Making of a Polychrome Sculpture grew out of research and work done by Mari-Tere Alvarez, project specialist, Department of Education, and Jane Bassett, conservator, Department of Decorative Arts Conservation.  Alvarez and Bassett have also co-authored an accompanying book that uses the statue Saint Ginés de la Jara (1692) as a focal point to explore La Roldana's life and artistic achievements as well as the mutifaceted techniques involved in the creation of polychrome sculpture.  Eike Schmidt, associate curator, Department of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, collaborated with Alvarez and Bassett on this exhibition. 

Note to editors: Images available upon request.

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Rebecca Taylor   
Getty Communications   

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