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from Diego Velázquez’s slave to distinguished artist

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by Diego Velazquez Portrait of Juan de Pareja has been a sight since leaving the artist’s makeshift studio in Rome in 1650. When he made his public debut, in the Pantheon, this piercing half-bust likeness of the man who was Velázquez’s slave for two decades, was a way for the Golden Age Spanish Painter to advertise his artistic talent and his arrival on the Roman art scene, which led to illustrious commissions (including Pope Innocent X). The portrait gained notoriety when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired it in 1971 for a record $5.5 million, snatching it from Longford Castle in southern England where it was inaccessible to the public for two centuries.

The Met has since prized the painting, but its sitter, Juan de Pareja (c. 1608-1670), has never been the subject of major study until now. The first institutional exhibition dedicated to him, Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic Paintertells the story of a man who began his own artistic career after Velázquez freed him from slavery (just months after painting his portrait).

“This exhibition reframes familiar works while introducing new ones into the canon, including Pareja’s own paintings,” says David Pullins, co-curator of the exhibition and associate curator of the European Paintings Department at the Met. Pareja’s works have never been assembled for exhibition and only one has been exhibited in the United States. Several pieces have been specially preserved, says Pullins, “to present Pareja in the best possible light as an artist in his own right rather than someone portrayed by Velázquez”.

The Met Museum bought Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja in 1971 for the then enticing price of $5.5 million © Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition will include around forty objects ranging from paintings and sculptures to decorative art objects, books and historical documents (such as his postage document). Beyond presenting Pareja as a painter rather than just a subject, the exhibition will include depictions of black and Morisco populations (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity after 1492) in Spain by canonical artists such as Francisco de Zurbarán and Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

Determining which of Pareja’s paintings to include in the exhibition was complicated by the fact that his remit changed over time. The scholarly monograph published in conjunction with the exhibition addresses them and includes the first-ever illustrated catalog of his 14 firmly attributed works. It also lists eight possible attributions and 31 works known only from texts – an impressive inventory, given that the entirety of Pareja’s opus dates from the last ten to twenty years of his life when he was free. Among the works known only from written records is a portrait of Velázquez by Pareja, a curious clue printed in auction records that could be a fascinating complement to the former’s portrait by the latter.

For now, this exhibition brings together two complementary images of Pareja: his portrayal by Velázquez and his full-length self-portrait 11 years later in The call of Saint Matthew (1661), in a similar pose and outfit. At an impressive 11 feet wide, this ambitious multi-figure painting on loan from Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado is Pareja’s best-known work. Although it paints a familiar story, who commanded it and its beginnings are questions that await answers.

Juan de Pareja The Baptism of Christ (1667) © Photographic Archive Museo Nacional del Prado

After gaining complete freedom, Pareja created a style distinct from Velázquez

The scientific study of Pareja’s life is recent. Many myths circulated about him, one suggesting he married Velázquez’s daughter and another that he died in a duel defending Velázquez’s son-in-law. Stronger research suggests that Pareja’s mother was a slave of African descent. Pareja came into Velázquez’s legal possession through purchase, inheritance or donation, a practice familiar within the artist’s family.

Another myth the exhibition hopes to expose is the extent to which enslaved craftsmanship was prevalent in Spain from medieval times to the early modern period, covering painting, pottery, jewellery, printing, sculpture and other trades. “Spanish visual culture of the 16th and 17th centuries is inseparable from enslaved labor,” writes Luis Méndez Rodríguez, professor of art history at the University of Seville, in the monograph.

Before releasing Pareja, Velázquez entrusted him with work such as grinding pigments, stretching and priming canvases, preparing varnishes, and cleaning brushes. The emancipation document stipulated an additional four years of service in slavery, a common practice, and in those years Pareja probably became more of an apprentice.

Pareja’s Portrait of the architect José Ratés Dalmau (1660s) Courtesy of Museo de Bellas Artes de València, photo: Paco Alcántara Benavent

After gaining complete freedom in 1654, Pareja created a style distinct from Velázquez and closer to the painters of the Madrid School, who used dense compositions and Venetian-inspired color palettes. He then worked as a painter until his death in Madrid in 1670.

Although Pareja’s story has not entirely disappeared from art history, it was brought to greater attention by collector and Harlem Renaissance scholar Arturo Schomburg in the early 20th century. As part of his mission to recover the history of people of African descent in early modern Europe, Schomburg became fascinated with Pareja and traveled to Spain to see his work. “I had traveled thousands of miles to admire the work of this colored slave who had succeeded through courageous perseverance in the face of every discouragement,” Schomburg wrote in an article published by the National Association for the Advancement of the People of color in 1927.

“It was a necessary act of recovery,” says Vanessa K. Valdés, guest curator and professor of Spanish and Portuguese at City College of New York. “Schomburg was writing only decades after slavery was abolished here in the United States, in a country bent on denying black history. For Schomburg, Pareja’s significance was not just that he existed, and as an accomplished artist in his own right, but also that he was part of a larger narrative centered on black achievement.

Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic PainterMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York, April 3-July 16

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