This is a story about a starving artist that borders on Kafkaesque. In effect, the artist suffered the same state of mind as Franz Kafka's character in his short story “A Hunger Artist” – alone and alienated.

Meet Luisa Roldan, Spain’s first known sculptor, who literally died of hunger four centuries ago even despite serving as court sculptor to Habsburg King Charles II, the last Habsburg ruler of the Spanish Empire. You will find her in a new Book debuting in September by art historian Catherine Hall-van den Elsen.

Hard Times

Granted the 17th-century when Roldan lived, history shows that times were tough throughout Europe.

Still, you would think that if you’re working for royalty, you would lack for nothing, least of all food.

It's not that she wasn’t hardworking, having formed her own workshop, which was unusual for a woman back then. She was also prolific, turning out many statues of religious figures made of wood and in full color for churches like the Cathedral of Cadiz. Her husband helped. She did the carving. He did the painting.

Yet, she died in extreme poverty, not having enough food to sustain herself. She had asked for help from Queen Maria Anna, the wife of Charles II. But even though help was given, it wasn’t enough. Roldan’s husband tried to market her sculpture, but he died. So did five of their seven children.

Family tragedy

Art historian Nancy Heller acknowledged Roland’s predicament in her 2002 book “Women Artists: An Illustrated History.” She ascribed the starvation to the country's economic crisis, which she said “affected the food supply.”

It’s notable, however, that the royal household managed. The Queen’s life didn’t end for a full 34 years after Roldan's.

And even though Charles' death preceded Roldan, he had been ill since birth.

While all this information has been noted by historians, Art Daily reports that the new book by Catherine Hall-van den Elsen brings the artist’s “exquisitely crafted” work” to life. That’s because the historian doesn’t just recount the facts of Roldan’s life, but she also “gorgeously illustrated” them with 81 full-color illustrations of the artist’s sculptures to “reveals how talented” she was.” The color reproductions are the stuff of coffee table books usually accorded to popularly known sculptors like Michelangelo and Rodin.

Getty Museum, an owner of a Roldan statue (Saint Gines de la Jara), says her figures are characterized by “mystical faces with delicate eyes.” Mystical faces? Soulful or worshipful, maybe, but there’s nothing veiled or esoteric about them.

In a review of the new book, Marjorie Trusted, a senior research fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum makes a case for the challenges that Roldan faced as a female artist in 17th-century Spain. And as the Getty reports, the book will be the first in a series called “Illuminating Women Artists” series to enlighten the world at large about the contributions of women artists.

In question

But wait, since history makes clear that times were tough in 17th-century Europe, and since, Roland died of starvation, why didn’t other European artists who passed away at about the same time also suffer starvation? I’m thinking in particular of English portrait painter Mary Beale, and French still-life painter Louise Moillon. Anybody?