Who Was Juan de Pareja, and Why Is He Important?

Who was Juan de Pareja? He was an artist and a Black man who lived first enslaved and then free in 17th-century Seville, Spain. He was the studio assistant to Diego Velázquez and his one-time muse. An ordinary man of his time and a historical curiosity, he has faded in and out of the collective cultural memory for years. For centuries he was known by one myth, which goes something like this: 

Velázquez, a favorite of King Philip IV, resided in court along with his dutiful slave de Pareja. Unknown to him, Pareja was making paintings in secret. One day the art-loving king stumbled upon Pareja’s surreptitious labor and demanded that he be freed, declaring that, “The man who had such talent cannot be a slave.”

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But what Pareja’s actual life reveals, so far as can be gauged from this vantage point, upends this myth along with some of our most deeply held beliefs about art, its history, and the people who make it.

Pareja has been brought back to the public’s attention by an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter.” The stunning show, co-curated by David Pullins, the museum’s associate curator of European paintings, and Vanessa K. Valdés, professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the City College of New York, not only gathers together Pareja’s work but contextualizes it in his own age, with paintings by Velázquez, works that probably bear the mark of enslaved studio assistants, and other artifacts that clue audiences in to the multiracial and multicultural world that Pareja lived in. 

Further, the show, running through July 16, spotlights the work of Arturo Schomburg, a Black historian active during the Harlem Renaissance who wrote extensively about Pareja. It and the attendant catalog are among the first efforts by a major art institution to seriously map what we do and do not know about Pareja––so far.

There is much we do not know, starting with when exactly Pareja was born; the guess is sometime around 1608 in the city of Antequera. We do not know who his parents were, only that his father was specified as deceased by 1650. We do not know if his father was enslaved or free, or whether he was his mother’s enslaver. We do not know if Pareja had a family of his own. 

We do not know how or when Pareja ended up enslaved in Velázquez’s studio; the first records linking him to the Velázquez household appear in the mid-1630s. We do not know his heritage––Pareja’s portraits and self-portraits clearly show a Black man, though a variety of documents describe him not as Black but as Hispano, as Velázquez was referred to as well. (Velázquez, for his part, was not without his racial anxieties, having submitted more than 100 documents in a quest to prove that there was no trace of Jewish or Muslim blood in his lineage, a requirement to be considered for knighthood.) 

Juan de Pareja’s manumission document.

We do not know exactly why Pareja was freed, his manumission document is spelled out in boilerplate language. Velázquez agreed to free Pareja in 1651, but four years had to pass before his enslavement actually ended. This lag was standard at the time, though evidence compiled by the Met exhibition’s curators shows that Pareja’s social status changed after the documents were signed. For instance, he was occasionally given his own servant.

What we do know is that the position he held in Velázquez’s studio was not unusual. It is estimated that around half of the artisanal households in Seville used enslaved individuals in their businesses. At the time, around 10 to 15 percent of Seville’s population was made up of enslaved or newly freed people, and there were strong Black fraternities in the city. 

Enslaved artisans were valuable not just for the labor they provided in workshops but because they could be rented out to others at a premium price due to their special skills. They would be expected to grind pigments, prime and stretch canvases, carve large blocks of wood, or do other preparatory tasks at the beginning of their tenure. It seems that the work taken on was not all that different from that of apprentices—the key difference, of course, being that apprentices were not enslaved. 

What is exceptional about Pareja’s life is that due to Velázquez’s position as the favorite portraitist of the king, the two lived in the court among Spain’s nobility and the people they owned and employed, including hombres de placer: jesters, the handicapped, people with dwarfism, all of whom Velázquez depicted for the king. Crucially, when Velázquez was charged with traveling around Europe to buy and bring back works of art to Spain, Pareja joined him on the journey. This trip became an extended lesson in art history for both painters, broadening their visual language. 

Juan de Pareja, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1661

Based on an analysis of works by Velázquez and Pareja, curator Pullins believes that by 1649–51, Pareja was making works partially or even in full for the Velázquez studio. Velázquez would receive commissions that he would pass on to Pareja, such as a portrait of King Philip IV paid for by the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in 1650. The basilica understood that while it was getting a painting from Velázquez’s studio and in his style, they would receive a portrait at a reduced price since it was not actually done by Velázquez himself. 

After Velázquez’s death, his relatives kept his studio operating, producing paintings in his style. This was not unusual; it was a common way to keep the money flowing. (In this connection, the idea that the so-called Masters were among the few who could pull off high forms of technique is a misunderstanding of what defines a true artist. Even today artists use studio assistants who can start or finish parts of paintings in their employer’s style.)

Pareja could have left Velázquez’s studio and continued to paint in Velázquez’s style, if only to make ends meet. And in fact he did take some commissions of this kind. But Pareja was also dedicated to expressing his own style and vision. 

Over the course of his career as a free man, he painted large, flowery religious scenes: the Virgin Mary surrounded by cherubs at the moment of immaculate conception, the baptism of Christ, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. In one particularly stunning work, The Calling of Saint Matthew (1661), Pareja inserted a self-portrait at the left edge of the painting, the figure holding a slip of paper with his name on it. 

It’s a strange sensation to see Pareja’s sly self-portrait rendered in his own hand, since his likeness is most commonly associated with Velázquez’s famous painting of his former slave, Portrait of Juan de Pareja (ca. 1650). In both The Calling of Saint Matthew and Juan de Pareja, Pareja is seen in 3/4 view, his head turned toward the onlooker, his gaze neutral. The self-portrait shows Pareja with slightly lighter skin, a straighter nose, Velázquez’s portrait depicts him with fuller lips, curlier hair. We cannot know which painting represented Pareja most accurately.

Diego Velázquez, Juan De Pareja, 1651

The paintings have led radically different lives. Velázquez’s portrait of Pareja elevated him to a new level of fame and regard in Spain and would go on to attract collectors and institutions over the ensuing centuries. In 1971 the Met purchased the painting from a private British collection for $5.5 million, breaking the previous auction record for any painting and enraging the English public, who though the state should have barred the export of the portrait. Meanwhile, The Calling of Saint Matthew languished in storage for many years in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Lithographs of the painting from the 1800s deliberately altered Pareja’s self-portrait, making him appear white. 

It wasn’t until Schomburg took interest in the life of Pareja that any serious, critical study was made of this once elusive historical figure. Not until 1983 did British art historian Jennifer Montagu uncover a key piece of Pareja’s history, his manumission document, and it is only due to the research that went on in preparation for “Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter” that we have a clear record outlining exactly what we do and do not know about Pareja’s life after the myth is stripped away. There is so much more to learn about this fascinating painter, which will hopefully come to light in due time.

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