Tolsá studied at the Royal Academy of San Carlos in Valencia and the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid. He was a student of José Puchol in sculpture and of Ribelles, Gascó and Gilabert in architecture. In Spain he was the sculptor of the king's chamber, minister of the Supreme Junta of Commerce, Minting and Mines, and an academic in San Fernando. In 1790 he was named director of sculpture at the recently created Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City. He sailed from Cádiz in February, 1791, bringing with him to New Spain, in accordance with the king's instructions, books, instruments of his profession, and plaster copies of classic sculptures from the Vatican Museum. He married María Luisa de Sanz Téllez Girón y Espinosa in the port of Veracruz.
On his arrival in Mexico City the ayuntamiento (city government) made him supervisor of the drainage and water supply systems of the city and assigned him the tasks of the replanting the Alameda park in the center of the city and the grounds of the coliseum. For these services he did not receive compensation. Thereafter he dedicated himself to the artistic and civil works for which he is now remembered. He also built furniture, made adornments for altars (candelabra, crucifixes, etc.), cast cannons, opened a bathhouse, built coaches and established a kiln. He donated a collection of molds and figures and 300 medals and coins to the Academy of San Carlos.
Tolsá died in 1816 of a gastric ulcer. His remains were interred in the church of Santa Veracruz, and later transferred to San Fernando.
Equestrian statue of Charles IV ("El Caballito") (1796–1803; cast on August 4, 1802). Alexander von Humboldt wrote of this statue, "M. Tolsa, professor of sculpture at Mexico, was even able to cast an equestrian statue of King Charles the Fourth; a work which, with the exception of the Marcus Aurelius at Rome, surpasses in beauty and purity of style everything which remains in this way in Europe."
The old palace of Buenavista (today the Museum of San Carlos)
The palace of the marqués del Apartado, in front of the Templo Mayor, Mexico City (1810). This is where King Ferdinand VII would have stayed if he had arrived in Mexico.
Main altar principal of the Cathedral of Puebla and an extant statue of the Virgin in wood, also at Puebla