Exhibit examines the truth behind Velazquez’ portrait of Juan de Pareja

“Portrait of Juan de Pareja” by Diego Velázquez. Photo/Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Pamela A. Lewis

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja in May 1971, words of praise rained down like confetti. The painting, executed in 1650 by one of the giants of Spain’s “Golden Age,” was a major acquisition for the museum. At $5.5 million, the portrait set an art-market record.

Now, the painting is the subject of a show at the New York museum titled “Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic Painter,” on view through July 16, that examines the reality behind Velázquez and de Pareja’s relationship.

At the time of the museum purchase, New York was in the throes of a financial meltdown. There was strong criticism of the depth of the Met’s acquisition funds, while others decried the British government’s failure to block the export of the portrait, which had been in the United Kingdom since the early 19th century.

Added to this were angry and loud protesters, still smarting from the Met’s 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind,” which symbolized for them the exploitation of an underrepresented community of color by a powerful and white art institution.

That institution had paid millions for a portrait by a great European artist, but in the media excitement it neglected to mention some important details: that Pareja was a man of African descent, that he was enslaved by Velázquez, and that he was a painter in his own right with a career in the 1660s.

Pareja was probably born around 1608 in Antequera, about 90 miles west of Seville. Antonio Palomino, Pareja’s first biographer, described him as “of mixed heritage [race], and a strange color,” yet there is no known document to support these traits.

Velázquez first visited Italy (between 1629 and 1630) to acquire greater skills in his profession. From 1649 to 1651, the artist and Pareja traveled to Italy together, spending most of their time in Rome. King Philip IV sponsored the trip with the objective that Velázquez procure works of art and plaster casts of antiquities for the Spanish crown. Palomino recorded that, “without neglecting his official business,” Velázquez painted numerous portraits, and his “Portrait of Juan de Pareja” was probably the first he completed.

All who saw it judged it to be a tour de force that declared his artistic stature. Andreas Schmidt, a Flemish painter active in Madrid, said it “received such universal acclaim when shown at the Pantheon in Rome that in the opinion of all the painters of different nations, everything else looked like painting, this alone looked like truth.”

Juan de Pareja’s manumission document. Photo/Metropolitan Museum of Art

The portrait brought much celebrity to Velázquez; but Pareja, traveling with a major European painter, also benefited vicariously from this Grand Tour education. His presence raised questions about the relationship between painter and sitter when the sitter is enslaved by the painter, underscoring the objectification and commodification of enslaved men and women who were bought, sold, and inventoried.

This notwithstanding, on Nov. 23, 1650, the two-year journey culminated with Velázquez signing the manumission papers that freed Pareja not only as a man (but contingent on four more years of enslaved service) but freed him to pursue a career as an independent painter. In a fascinating but unprovable detail, scholars have speculated whether Velázquez was moved to sign Pareja’s manumission papers when he acknowledged the deep humanity that radiated from his enslaved sitter’s face.

The Velázquez-Pareja story is only half of this exceptional exhibition. The other focuses on Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938), widely recognized as a historian of Black culture in the United States. His personal collection of books, prints, documents, and ephemera was purchased in 1926 by the Carnegie Foundation and became the basis for the renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located in Harlem.

Born in Puerto Rico — then a Spanish colony — to a free Black mother from the Danish West Indies and a free white Puerto Rican father of German heritage, Schomburg pioneered a new and deeper understanding of Pareja as a central figure in the long yet largely unknown history of the Black diaspora. Schomburg recognized that this artist was an essential figure in the study of the broader, political project of recovery. With the income from the sale to the Carnegie Foundation, Schomburg departed to Europe on what he called his “mission of love to recapture my lost heritage,” and to further explore the Black presence on that continent. Spain was his first stop.

With his Kodak always at the ready, Schomburg documented his travel to Seville, where he visited the Archive of the Indies, a repository that details the history of the Spanish empire, including the trafficking of enslaved Africans to the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas; the extraction of resources; and the destruction of Indigenous civilizations in Granada and Madrid.

A photograph of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Photo/Metropolitan Museum of Art via the Schomburg Collection

On loan from the Schomburg Collection are many of its former owner’s photographs, as well as archival documents relating to the contributions of Black people in the societies they inhabited. These items, particularly the photos of sites where Black people walked, congregated, and worshiped, which Schomburg assembled into albums, personalize and animate the exhibition.

Brought together and displayed for the first time in the Met’s roomy and well-illuminated Lehman Wing are portraits (two of the Hapsburg-jawed King Philip IV) and large-scale religious canvases categorized as either “firm” or “possible” attribution to Pareja. Impressive in size and in pictorial detail, it was “The Calling of Saint Matthew” (1661) that moved Schomburg to sit “in reverent silence” when he first saw it in Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado (where it still lives).

In this grand work on canvas, Pareja depicts the familiar gospel event of Christ, who summons the tax collector Levi (the future St. Matthew) to join him as an apostle, while transforming that moment by including himself in the scene. Standing on the far-left side of the painting, opposite Christ, is the artist, who looks out at the viewer. In his right hand he holds a piece of paper that bears the words “Juan de Pareja F(ecit) 1661” (“Made [or done] by Juan de Pareja”).

With its layers of color, textures, figures, and light, “The Calling of Saint Matthew” is a visually compelling, perhaps even “showy,” work that fully engages with the canons of Western art, and into which the artist has boldly inserted his full-length self-portrait. Pareja’s self-inclusion in a biblical subject painting perhaps makes a larger statement about the place — and placement — of a person of color in such a work.

The largest and most compositionally complex “The Baptism of Christ” (1667) and “The Flight Into Egypt” (1658) are also on view, along with other biblical works, whose styles are less dynamic and palettes lighter than “The Baptism” and “The Calling of Saint Matthew.”

Nonetheless, seen together, these disparate paintings offer visitors a sense of Pareja’s openness to experimentation in both subject matter and technique, rather than mimicking his former enslaver’s artistic approaches. While art historians had long suggested that Pareja tried to emulate Velázquez and failed, they overlook that Pareja’s paintings dated after his official manumission in 1654 demonstrate that he took a different artistic route, aligning himself with the so-called Madrid School. This group’s style and palette were informed by different sources in Europe, such as Flemish, and particularly by Peter Paul Rubens.

There is still much to be learned and understood about Pareja’s output and ways to determine attribution. However, the Met’s exhibition has shed long-awaited light on not only the man behind the Velázquez portrait, but also on the social and cultural contributions of people of African descent in Spain. Paintings by Murillo and Zurbaran, contemporaries of Velázquez’s, as well as sculptures and decorative and utilitarian objects, point emphatically to this presence.

Were it not for the foresight and persistence of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg to restore what slavery had taken away, a fuller and more accurate understanding of European culture would be missing. “Juan de Pareja” is the kind of exhibition that highlights one of the Met’s important roles as an educational institution, which gives visitors the opportunity to engage with and learn from never-before-seen artwork by little-known or unknown artists, while also serving as a powerful corrective to incomplete (or incorrect) histories. Which proves that there is always more to something — or someone — than meets the eye.

Pamela A. Lewis is a member of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, in New York City. She writes on topics of faith. This story was first published in The Living Church.

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