About Rosa Rolanda

  • Biography
  • Influence & Analysis
  • Cooking & Hobbies

Rosemonde Cowan was born in Los Angeles, California on September 6, 1895. Born to Henry Charles Cowan and Guadalupe Ruelas, she was followed into the world a year later by her sister, Mae. Growing up, Rolanda was headstrong and bossy at times, but she was outgoing and very beautiful, and was therefore quite popular in school. She was an average student, but discovered her strengths in physical education and sculpture, an indication of her life to come.

In high school, Rolanda took gymnastics lessons from Marion Morgan, who encouraged her to study dance. With a natural aptitude for movement and grace, Rolanda excelled in her dance lessons and in 1916, a year after her high school graduation, she was chosen as one of six students out of 300 to go to New York and perform as the Morgan Dancers. Rolanda later reflected on this time saying, “While I was rehearsing, I was still only mildly interested in dancing. After the first appearance on a New York stage, however, it was all over. The germ bit me and bit me hard” (Williams 25).

From that point on, Rolanda never looked back or bothered to maintain contact with her family in California. After the Morgan Dancers, she acted on Broadway, appeared in an article published in Vogue, performed at the Globe Theatre as part of the “The Rose Girl” show, joined the cast of the Music Box Revue, and eventually went on to tour with the Ziegfeld Follies in Europe.

In New York in 1923, Rolanda met Miguel Covarrubias, a caricaturist, illustrator, and her future husband. The two shared many of the same interests—dance being one of them—and for a time they both worked on a show for the Garrick Gaieties called Rancho Mexicano, in which Rolanda starred, Covarrubias designed the sets, and their friend, Tata Nacho, composed the music. The show received outstanding reviews and these years were always remembered as a golden time for Rolanda, who loved the spotlight.

In 1926, Covarrubias took Rolanda home to Mexico to meet his family and friends, including art power couples Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (who painting Rolanda on several occasions), and Tina Modotti and Edward Weston (who taught Rolanda the art of photography, her longest-lasting medium). Covarrubias and Rolanda traveled to Paris later that year, where she first began to paint, experimenting with watercolors in their room at the Hotel Excélsior.

Covarrubias and Rolanda were married in 1930 and spent the following nine months living in Bali, a province of Indonesia. They quickly became enraptured by the Balinese culture, staying far longer than they had intended, and Rolanda took hundreds of photographs capturing the marketplace, the children, and the local customs.

In 1935, the couple moved to Covarrubias’ recently vacated childhood home in Tizapán, Mexico. Anthropology and archeology became Covarrubias’ life work, while Rolanda began hosting elaborate dinner parties and painting portraits of her friends. Her first portrait was of Dolores del Río, a famous Mexican actress and lifelong friend of the Covarrubias’. Heavily influenced by her environment and artistic culture, Rolanda painted mostly in gouache, and sometimes in oil. By the early 1940s, all of her new friends called her Rosa, so she changed her name (it was not the first time she had done so) to fit her new Mexican home and lifestyle.

Covarrubias was named the artistic director and director of administration of the new Bellas Artes Academy of Dance in 1950. In time, an affair developed between him and one of his students—a beautiful girl who was 30 years his junior. It was not Covarrubias’s first affair, but it was the affair that ripped apart his marriage. Rolanda and Covarrubias had drifted apart over the years, pursuing different interests, and the two eventually separated, though they never divorced. Covarrubias passed away in 1957.

After Covarrubias’s death, Rolanda surrounded herself with close friends who had stood by her through the years, including Georgia O’Keeffe, John Huston, and Mary and Nelson Rockefeller. She diligently looked after what remained of Covarrubias’s extensive art collection (most of it found its way into museums after his death) and continued to cultivate her own collection of rare and interesting pieces, many of which she promised to her friends in her will. Rolanda grew particularly close with Luis Barragan, an architect who encouraged her to continue pursuing her art. Adriana Williams writes that by this point in her life, Rolanda “was no longer interested in mining Indian themes for inspiration. She turned instead to still lifes, tropical flowers, insects, and butterflies” (239). Through it all, Rolanda continued to visit her husband’s grave weekly, and eventually joined him in death in 1970.

Rolanda was a woman of many names, many talents, and many, many interests. Over the course of her life, she studied sculpture, piano, dance, acting, costume design, choreography, painting, and photography. She traveled, cooked, modeled, gardened, kept a journal, designed jewelry, and collected artifacts from all over the world. She inspired passion, jealousy, love, and fear in those around her; regardless of what else may be said about her, Rosa Rolanda’s life was undeniably fascinating. 

Rosa Rolanda was a woman of travel. Over the course of her life, she journeyed across the world, gaining exposure to an astonishing number of local customs. Like any true artist, Rolanda drew inspiration from this exposure, and her travels came to influence her life in several critical ways.

For instance, Rolanda’s home décor was inspired by ancient Mexican architecture; she designed her kitchen around the ornate design of 18th century baroque architecture which she saw in a house in Puebla, Mexico. She spent many long days cooking in her new kitchen, hosting elaborate dinner parties and luncheons for her friends and mastering the authentic recipes she collected during her travels. In this way, her style of cooking was influenced heavily by her trips around the world, from the traditional food of her new country, Mexico, to cuisine she tasted in Bali, France, China, and the countless other places she visited.

Her photography was another medium through which Rolanda expressed her love of travel. After learning how to use a camera from Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, Rolanda began taking pictures everywhere she went. These pictures were not simply tourist shots of her and her husband Miguel. Rather, the photos documented the native people in their everyday routines. Rolanda’s photographs captured priceless pieces of culture, telling stories of the environment, cuisine, dress, and local customs of all the places the couple visited throughout their lives. Rolanda was clearly inspired by the native traditions of Bali especially, and many of the photographs she took there made their way into Miguel’s book, Island of Bali, which—aided by Rolanda’s photographs—described the Balinese culture and traditions to those who could not visit the island themselves.

In addition to her global adventures, Rolanda also drew inspiration from the culture of the country she now called home—Mexico. We can see this influence primarily in her choice of subject matter; she often chose to paint depictions of ancient Aztecs, tracing the nation to the very depths of its roots. In fact, such influence is also evident in the way she painted her subjects. Rolanda frequently painted warm-skinned women and children with large eyes, and compact, childlike body proportions, playing into traditional Mexican stereotypes. She dressed her models in authentic Mexican dress, and often featured traditional Mexican artifacts and customs in the works.

In her painting La niña del taco (1947), Rolanda portrays a young girl with wide eyes and squat body proportions holding a taco while a malnourished dog gazes at it longingly. The girl is wearing a traditional headdress with paper flowers and blue and gold ribbons, paired with simple shoes and a very “Mexican” dress. The girl appears to be standing in the foreground of a scene involving a church service or some sort of community celebration. Off to the right of the scene, lurking in the shadows of the alleyway, is a man wearing a skeleton costume. Skeleton iconography is rife with meaning in the Mexican culture, and Rolanda pays tribute to this custom by including this skeleton-man in her painting. All of these traditional elements speak loudly to the authentic “folk” feel Rolanda wished to recreate in her works.

Rolanda painted these definitively “Mexican” elements into her self-portraits, as well. Born in California, and raised as part of a thoroughly average family, Rolanda was eager to bury her humble origins under an air of mystique which she worked hard to create for herself. She was intentionally vague about her past, encouraging speculation, and when she moved to Mexico, she wholeheartedly adopted the nation’s customs and history as her own. We can see this in the way she frequently depicted herself in paintings, such as Autorretrato (1939). By giving herself large almond-shaped eyes, along with traditional Mexican hairstyles and clothing, Rolanda fostered a new identity for herself that was entirely “Mexican.”

Of her own painting, Rolanda once said the following in an interview with Bertha Cuevas:

I am of the neo-figurative school of painting. I rarely exhibit but paint for myself. I must paint what I know and what I like. I paint to delight, to amuse. I capture a curve or a color that surprises the eye. I wish I could say I paint out of deep yearning, crazy passion, but I don’t. I paint for pleasure. I don’t exhibit in galleries. People who see my paintings in my house and like them buy directly from me. (131)

Rolanda’s developing technique was undoubtedly influenced later on by her friends, such as Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti, who were busy exploring the world of Surrealism in their own art. Self-portraiture was extremely important to women surrealists as they began to explore the theme of identity, and they began to depict themselves as they felt on the inside, rather than how they looked on the outside.

Photomontage was one vehicle for Surrealism which Rolanda utilized in particular.

Photomontage, or photocollage, had become by the 1930s a relatively widespread technique that was practiced by artists across numerous visual and social movements…. Artists selected images to be included in the photomontage, and through the artistic device of juxtaposition, expressed satire, political views, private fantasies, or dreams of a utopian, technological, and egalitarian future. (LACMA Evenings for Educators)

Rolanda’s photogram Drawing Photogram (late 1920s) is an example of such a photomontage. In this image, a woman (presumably Rolanda, given the hairstyle and the characteristic large eyes) wears what appears to be a glassy dress which is slightly see-through, yet still modest. She is surrounded by images of shells, a deer, a ruler, and the sun—symbols associated with ancient Aztec culture and Mesoamerican creation myths (LACMA). These seemingly random symbols, when examined in context of one another, allude to Mexico’s roots, and Rolanda’s connection with her adopted heritage.

The 1920s brought an emerging sense of feminism to the art world, and feminist themes spread quickly through the surrealist community. Many women were beginning to reject their traditional role as stay-at-home wives and mothers in favor of pursuing their own personal aspirations. Women were still having families, but they refused to be constrained to that function alone. They began earning their own livings and asserting themselves in new and exciting ways. Many Mexican women artists during this time expressed feminist themes in their work, Rolanda included.

Her feminist themes can be seen in such paintings as Niña de la muñeca (1943). This painting depicts a young girl wearing a traditional Mexican dress, reminiscent of many of Rolanda’s other works. The girl holds a tanguyu doll in her arms, typically given to little Zapotec girls along with small kitchen utensils. At the girl’s feet is a horse and rider, customarily given to little boys of the same tradition (Comisarenco Mirkin 25).

While the girl appears to be very stereotypically feminine in her frilly pink dress, the small details of the painting point to the idea of an underlying female strength. First, the doll in the girl’s arms is wearing a characteristic tehuana dress, “a well-established symbol of the independence and strong character of the Tehuantepec woman” (25).

Comisarenco Mirkin also points out that the horseman at the bottom of the painting could also have symbolic implications:

His hat identifies him as a ‘charro,’ the typical peasant with a pistol on horseback, a recognized sign of the stereotypical ‘macho’ Mexican culture and its emphasis on masculinity, bravery, sexual potency, and physical aggressiveness. Because of its diminished size and ‘toy-like’ connotation, his placement at the girl’s feet, as if offering her a serenade, bespeaks humorously of the positive prospective of changing gender roles in Mexican society according to Roland[a]’s progressive views. (25)

In addition to working under the numerous outside influences discussed thus far, Rolanda, like many women Mexican artists of the time, also drew inspiration from her own personal struggles. She was able to delve fearlessly into her deepest emotional insecurities and paint them on a canvas for the world to see. For instance, in her painting Autorretrato, we get a painfully clear sense of Rolanda’s inner turmoil during what was undoubtedly the most troubling time of her life. Rolanda created the painting in 1952, in the midst of Miguel’s affair with the much younger Rocío Sagaón. Rocío was a dancer, like Rolanda, and in many ways the two were too similar; Miguel quickly fell in love with the younger version of his wife. Rolanda knew this was not one of Miguel’s typical flings. His feelings for Rocío ran deeper than a mere affair, while Miguel and Rolanda had already been growing more distant with each passing day. Ultimately, Miguel left his wife, leaving Rolanda feeling crushed, angry, and inadequate as a woman.

In the self-portrait, we see Rolanda, her face weary and haunted, and her hands clamped to the sides of her head as though trying to hold herself together, or to force out painful thoughts. These thoughts are illustrated in the space surrounding her. Floating around her body, filling the rest of the painting, we see images of skeletons (possibly intended to represent her dying relationship with Miguel), and dancing figures (almost certainly depictions of Rocío). The swirling figures overwhelm us as we look into the cold agony in Rolanda’s eyes, and we understand the bitter heartache of a woman whose life is quickly coming unthreaded, stitch by stitch.

Rolanda’s ability to tap into such a heart wrenching theme is part of what makes her work so universal. She depicts her suffering in a way that still resonates with viewers over 50 years later. Of course, we can dissect the painting on a technical level, and objectively analyze Rolanda’s skill as an artist, but we are also able to relate to her pain on a very real, human level, and I believe that is one of the greatest attractions of her work.

Rosa Rolanda lived a long life filled with various forms of artistic expression, from painting and photography, to dancing and cooking. She drew inspiration from her experiences in all areas of her life; her travels, her friends, the Mexican culture, the Surrealist movement, the feminist movement, and her own personal struggles all served to spark Rolanda’s creativity. These various influences shaped her art in a vital, visible way, adding to the richness of Rolanda’s artistic repertoire in a way that we can still appreciate today.

Rolanda Rolanda had many talents and hobbies, but perhaps one of her longest-lived art forms was her skill in the kitchen. Rolanda loved to cook. In her book about the lives of Miguel and Rolanda Covarrubias, Adriana Williams writes:

Food was an interest that Miguel and Rose had shared since they dated in the 1920s in New York. Wherever they traveled, to Europe, the Orient, Northern Africa, or the South Seas, they searched out the best restaurants. Rose did not hesitate to ask a chef for a recipe she admired, and perhaps because of her obvious appreciation, she was never refused. To Miguel’s pleasure, she never failed to reproduce these exotic dishes. Rose was a truly talented gourmet, and everyone who had the good fortune to dine at her table knew it, including Rose. Miguel told friends that the only thing about which Rose was immodest was her cooking. (130)

During her time in Mexico, Rolanda became fascinated with authentic Mexican styles of cooking. When she learned that ancient Aztecs ground their corn using metates and cooked their food over charcoal, she equipped her kitchen with a charcoal-burning stove and began to grind her own corn using the same type of metate found in archeological digs. Columba Domínguez, a Mexican actress who knew the Covarrubias family, said, “She was the envy of all the cooks in Mexico. Nowhere could you eat meals like the ones Rolanda prepared. She knew everything there was to know about food… She was truly sensational” (128-9).

Rolanda even mentored Domínguez in the art of traditional Mexican food: “First she began by showing me how to buy the ingredients in the markets for Mexican dishes. Not until she was fully satisfied with my ability to cook Mexican dishes, did she teach me how to make some of her great Oriental ones” (139). Indeed, the Mexican culture and way of life was very important to Rolanda and she worked very hard to preserve (or, in some cases, restore) traditional Mexican dishes, by passing them on to pupils such as Domínguez.

While she was certainly proficient in the preparation of Mexican food, her life of travel was bound to rub off, and she once declared in a Mexico City newspaper that Mexican food was not her favorite: “As far as I’m concerned, the Chinese are the best cooks in the world, the Mexicans the second, and the French the third.” She cheekily added, “In China and France men are better chefs, but in Mexico we women have a better hand at seasoning” (129).

And indeed, Rolanda took her role as a daughter of Mexico very seriously, going so far as to build two kitchens in her home so as to better equip herself for her cooking endeavors. She called one her “Mexican” kitchen (where she spent time creating traditional Mexican meals) and the other her “American” kitchen (where she cooked when she needed to speed up the process). She gathered a collection of authentic cooking utensils from various marketplaces and displayed them proudly on the walls of her Mexican kitchen. She loved showing off both this kitchen and her excellent cooking ability by hosting elaborate luncheons and dinner parties for her friends, attracting the likes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, David Siquieros and his wife, Angélica, Fito Best Maugard, the Tamayos, Georgia O’Keeffe, Dolores del Río, and countless other artists, scholars, actors, poets, and politicians. These parties were quite popular and it was considered a treat to be able to sample some of Rolanda’s exotic dishes.

Rolanda even took steps over the years toward authoring a cookbook. She entered into two different contracts in the 1940s—on which she never followed through—and then in 1969, some time after Covarrubias’ death, she actually began compiling recipes for such a book. Unfortunately, this goal never made it to fruition, and after her death the precious recipes were eventually lost.

Rolanda Rolanda had countless interests and talents, but cooking was, perhaps, one of her truest expressions of self. She had been born with a love for fine cuisine that only deepened as her travels exposed her to new exotic dishes from around the world. Rolanda took cooking above a hobby; with all the time, money, and love she poured into her kitchen, it was truly more of an art. It’s certainly safe to say that her friends appreciated her talent in the kitchen, and Rolanda will always be remembered as a gourmet at heart.