John Mcewen com­ments on Juan de Pareja

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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

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