Rosa Rolanda, Self-Portrait

Rosa Rolanda, Self-Portrait, 1939, oil on canvas, 40 x 29.9 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:04] We’re at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and we’re standing in front of Rosa Rolanda’s “Self-Portrait” from 1939. This portrait allows us to talk about transnational identities. She’s born in California, but she travels around the world and eventually settles in Mexico.

Dr. Jen Padgett: [0:23] Rolanda was an artist of both Mexican and Scottish descent and for her, self-portraiture and creative work was an important part of her self-exploration. She’s tightly cropped this painting to focus on her face, and then sets her figure against this bright blue background so that it pops out, and then further in the background, this ambiguous, fascinating landscape.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:50] We’re seeing her from the shoulders up. She’s looking off to the side. Her eyes are sizable, and she has this hairstyle fashion from the 1930s that’s set up with two white flowers, and then there is this swallowtail butterfly at the nape of her neck.

[1:09] Rolanda is a self-taught artist. Before she became a painter, she was experimenting with different types of photography, and this self-portrait reminds me of some of the photograms that she creates earlier in her life.

Dr. Padgett: [1:24] She began her career as a dancer and moved to New York after she graduated high school to perform on Broadway. That career in dance meant that she traveled broadly. Her interest in traveling continued through her life.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:39] While she’s in New York, she marries the caricaturist, artist, anthropologist Miguel Covarrubias. The two of them relocate to Mexico City, and they’re there with some of the most well-known Mexican modernists of the time. They’re in the same circle as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who was a close friend.

[1:59] They’re traveling around Mexico taking photographs with Edward Weston and Tina Modotti. They were in this avant-garde crowd who were experimenting with different types of styles and techniques, including Surrealism.

Dr. Padgett: [2:13] Surrealism allows for a means of artists to explore subjective experience and to be able to reimagine their own identities.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:22] In 1939, Mexico City is this center of artistic production and experimental techniques, and here we have Rolanda crafting a portrait of herself that is rooted in Mexican identity of the time.

[2:37] If we look at the landscape, we see a snow-capped volcano in the background, and then closer to the curve of her neck we see a flat-capped volcano. These are the famed Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes that surround the Valley of Mexico.

[2:53] Artists of the time, like Dr. Atl, Luis Nishizawa, and even painters earlier in the 19th century, are showing the volcanoes as an icon of mexicanidad, of Mexican identity.

Dr. Padgett: [3:07] For Rolanda, that exploration of Mexican identity was so crucial to her own self-invention.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:15] The butterfly going through this metamorphosis makes me think of her identity as an artist who is attempting to figure out who she is.

Dr. Padgett: [3:24] That butterfly is unexpected, and that seems like a subtle hint to Surrealism, that sense in which things that might be familiar to us can become strange through something like the placement.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:36] She almost becomes part of the landscape. Notice how the volcano next to her neck has the same swoop.

[3:43] Even the way that her hair is fashioned seems to mimic the fantastical landscape elements in the scene, because while we have volcanoes that are identifiable in Mexico City, this is not what the landscape of the Valley of Mexico looks like.

Dr. Padgett: [3:59] The importance of self-portraiture within the circle of Mexican artists at this time is probably best known through the work of Frida Kahlo, who’s become so beloved and acclaimed for her self-portraits.

[4:14] But Kahlo was part of this larger circle of individuals, including Rolanda, who used self-portraiture for their own artistic aims.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:23] This rich moment in the city’s history, where especially female artists who were associated with Surrealism were finding that they could express themselves in ways that maybe they weren’t able to before.

[4:36] Rosa Rolanda has largely been overlooked in scholarship, in exhibitions. I think it’s high time that we get to know more about her.

[4:47] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Jennifer Padgett, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Rosa Rolanda, Self-Portrait," in Smarthistory, October 5, 2022, accessed July 18, 2024,