John Mcewen comments on Juan de Pareja
Velázquez was much more than Court Painter to Phillip IV of Spain, although, even five years after his appointment, he still received the same daily allowance as the Court barbers. That the King sent him on two sponsored visits to Italy (1629–31, 1649–51), the second as ‘ambassador extraordinary to Pope Innocent X and to buy original paintings and old statues, and to take casts of some of the more celebrated… by both Greek and Roman artists’, shows his high standing. As Francis Bacon said: ‘He was probably the only really sophisticated being existing around the Court… the only man that at least enlivened for a moment his [the King’s] day.’
Velázquez’s assignment on his second Italian royal mission was to buy pictures for the royal collection and statuary for Spain’s proposed first art academy. He also painted—notably the portrait of Innocent X (famously reinterpreted by Bacon 500 years later), for which this half-length masterpiece of his assistant was a preparatory exercise.
Pareja was a Moorish half-caste and therefore a slave. Slaves were forbidden to be artists, but, working for Velázquez, Pareja both learned to paint and revealed an exceptional talent. In 1654, he was granted his freedom and enjoyed an independent career as an admired artist. Few of his works survive, but enough to confirm his reputation and that, in style, he was not a Velázquez follower.
It was the Roman custom to exhibit outstanding old and new pictures in the Pantheon’s cloister. When Velázquez showed this portrait, according to Palomino in his An account of the lives and works of the most eminent Spanish painters, sculptors and architects (1724), ‘in the opinion of all the painters of different nations everything else seemed like painting, but this alone like truth’.
‘I have long been fascinated by portraiture in painting and, for me, this is one of the greatest examples of the genre. Unlike Velázquez’s powerful depiction of Pope Innocent X, for which it is in some ways an exercise in preparation, Juan de Pareja is shown without any studio props, one arm draped protectively across his midriff, his hand almost awkwardly positioned. He is a sort of Everyman, whose dark eyes emanate expression, humility and self-control, as well as a dignity that belies his servitude.the art historian Lionello Venturi wrote that a portrait is either poetry or history. For me, this one manages to be both at the same time: a window into the politics of the mid 17th century and a reminder that humanity is not defined by class, ethnicity or religion, a lesson perhaps truer today than it ever has been
Juan de Pareja, 1650, by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), 32in by 27½in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA