The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
– its plans for the opening of its 150th birthday exhibition delayed by Covid 19,
and its history and mission under internal review in the wake of massive race-based disturbances in the US and world – reopened today.
To visit again this exclusively red-brown-black portrait of a man within sight of his freedom, after more than two decades of slave status,
freedom from the hand of his master, undoubtedly his teacher, and portraitist, Diego Velázquez.
Juan de Pareja,1606-1670; and details below, 1650, oil on canvas.
Diego Velázquez, 1599-1660, Spanish. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
The museum’s guidance on this portrait which entered its collection in 1971, is this:
Juan de Pareja, a man of African and white Spanish descent, born near Malaga, was a slave for at least two decades, working as a workshop assistant to Velázquez in Seville. His name is noted in the family’s records as early as 1634.
Seville at the time had a large population of slaves of African and native American descent working in many parts of the city’s domestic and commercial economy.
Velázquez took Juan de Pareja with him to Rome when he won the commission to portray Pope Innocent X.
It was in Rome in 1650 that Velázquez made this portrait of his slave; to universal acclaim.
Vatican archives contain a manumission document of 1650 in which Velázquez agreed to free de Pareja after four years of additional service.
It is not known why he did this in the Eternal City and at that time.
When de Pareja gained his freedom in Madrid, he embarked on a painting career independent in style from that of his former slave master. Very successful also.
The Met points to this large painting as Juan de Pareja’s masterpiece
The calling of Saint Matthew, 1661, oil on canvas.
Juan da Pareja, 1606-1670. The Prado, Madrid; photo from its website
Christ is summoning Matthew to follow him.
The artist’s self-portrait is on the extreme left.
On the left, de Pareja included himself looking beyond the picture frame at us.
He has a piece of paper in his hand with his signature on it. (All of his paintings were visibly and carefully signed with his name.)
Which brought to my mind with pleasure and interest Diego Velázquez‘ own self-portrait in Las Meninas, 1656, at his large easel, on the left looking beyond the picture frame at us.
Las Meninas, 1656, oil on canvas.
Diego Velázquez, 1599-1660, Spanish. The Prado, Madrid from whose website this photo
These two paintings – Las Meninas and The Calling of St. Matthew – as different as are their styles and subject matter are in company at the Prado;
as their painters were in company for so long in their lives with each other.
The one at his easel; the other with the signature of his own exclusive authorship as a free man in hand.
And the mystery – is it just to our modern mind? – being how such an unequal relationship can have yielded not only a portrait of a slave by his master which gives no hint of social unease or subordination: quite the opposite;
but also yielded a career as assured and independent as it was successful on the part of that slave, once set free, in a hidebound and hierarchical society in which slavery had yet one hundred and sixty-one years more to run its legally-sanctioned course.
These three paintings are connected in my mind by these mysteries.
Nor am I unhappy that the veiled and sorrowfully pugnacious eyes of Juan de Pareja yield no answers. As they cannot.
The answers are left to our imaginations informed, perhaps, by further historical scholarship. And also by our own work in our own societies today?
To invite again and again into the presence of this masterwork
where, on either side, are two more. In my mind.