Podcast version of this post.
Complex Humanity in a Face
The painting Juan de Pareja by Diego Velázquez reminds us what it means to be human. We’re complicated people and our relationships with each other just make us more complex. That’s why portraits stay popular through the ages. They give us a chance to stare into someone’s eyes for as long as we like. Viewers can take our time and examine a figure’s face. But some faces are more intriguing than others. I love the face of Juan de Pareja especially because with this portrait Velázquez gives us more than this particular man, he also portrays what it means to be a man among men.
Behind what seems like a simple portrait there’s also the story of man’s inhumanity to man. That’s because although Juan de Pareja was an artist in his own right, he also had no rights. He was enslaved to the same man who painted this portrait of him, Diego Velázquez.
Juan de Pareja was enslaved. But he was also much more than that. He painted and was a dignified and beautiful man. This portrait captures the dignity of Pareja more so than his societal status. But the painting also reminds us that the painter had a relationship with Juan de Pareja that was more complicated than just one of enslavement. Boundaries were blended because Pareja was a fellow artist, also Velázquez’s traveling companion and some say friend… others enemy.
Art lovers and historians speculate about the meaning behind the portrait Juan de Pareja. Because they’re also human, their analysis can sometimes slip into speculation and even rumor. This guesswork includes envy and sabotage as well as honor and friendship. But there’s not enough evidence for certainty on either side of these reports.
The facts we can know for sure point to this historic portrait as the first recorded to portray a Spanish man of African descent. It also broke the record for the most expensive painting ever purchased by the Met at auction when they bought it in 1970.
This masterpiece holds intrinsic value far beyond its place in the history books or rumor mills, though. It’s a wonder that a man painting his own slave created a work that seems to reveal the soul of a man. That’s the compelling experience of this masterpiece in person. So, let’s focus on what we see in Juan de Pareja rather than what we’ve merely heard about it.
LadyKflo’s YouTube Summary
A Confident Man of Character
When I first saw Juan de Pareja, his expressive eyes seemed to follow me around the gallery. They’re filled with longing and sadness. It’s compelling and drew me in. I wanted to know more about this man just from those eyes. But his stance also says a lot about Juan de Pareja. Notice how his shoulders are back. He’s confident. Also Pareja tucks a hand under his left rib as if to bring us closer to his heart. There’s such sensitivity in his face and this gesture that it feels like Juan could open his mouth and speak to us at any moment.
This sense of reality comes through thanks to Velázquez’s extraordinary skill. We see this in the delicate lace proliferation of Pareja’s collar. It sets off the ruddy handsomeness of his features and flushed cheeks. The fresh, fanciful white also punctuates the drab olive of Pareja’s overall ensemble. Without it, he might be mistaken for a soldier. But this enslaved man was an esteemed artist in his own right. The collar reminds us of this refinement in Pareja’s character. His dignified demeanor gives Pareja the gravity of a man with a soul and profound talent. If not for the informational placard, I’d never have guessed this was the portrait of an enslaved man painted by the one who enslaved him.
That’s part of what makes this such a masterpiece and so memorable. Velázquez was a true master and painted some of the most notable artworks in art history. Juan de Pareja is one of my all time favorites. That’s because it brings out the humanity in this man and reminds me of the heart and soul within us all.
Juan de Pareja – FAQs
How much did the Metropolitan Museum of Art pay for Juan de Pareja by Diego Velázquez?
In 1970, the Velázquez portrait Juan de Pareja broke art auction sales records when the Met bought if for more than a million dollars. At that time it was the first painting to sell for a sum this large at auction. The museum still considers the portrait one of their most important acquisitions.
Why is the Juan de Pareja portrait an important painting?
When Diego Velázquez painted his enslaved, artist assistant Juan de Pareja, he made history. He created this masterpiece in 1650 and it was the first recorded portrait depicting a Spaniard of African descent.
Velásquz displayed this portrait along with several other artworks at the Pantheon in Rome. It was met with great acclaim as one of his greatest works and far exceeded expectations. Velásquez painted it as part of preparation for the portrait he was to create for Pope Innocent X.
The painter was preparing for a challenging task. This Pope would require that he work quickly while also providing an accurate and insightful depiction of his personality.
It was a tall order and thus Velásquez focused great attention on his assistant, Juan de Pareja as practice for this tremendous job, painting the Pope. In the process, he made a masterpiece and meditation on what it means to be human.
Enjoyed this analysis of Juan de Pareja by Diego Velázquez?
Check out LadyKflo’s essays on other Spanish masters.
Hoving, Thomas (15 February 1994). Making the Mummies Dance: Inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Simon and Schuster.
Velázquez, exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF)
Mudimbe, V. Y. (1994). The Idea of Africa, Indiana University Press.
Stoichita, Victor (2010). “The Image of the Black in Spanish Art: Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries”. In Bindman, David; Gates, Jr, Henry Louis (eds.). The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume III. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Cork, Richard (22 November 2014). “The story of the first painting to sell for over a million pounds”. The Spectator.
“Portrait of Juan de Pareja, the Assistant to Velázquez, Salvador Dali; Depicted: Juan de Pareja”. Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Gosling, Nigel (1 December 2013). “From the Observer archive: 29 November 1970: A Velázquez now forever scarred by its £2m price-tag”. The Guardian.
Basu, Lopamudra (26 May 2016). “Between Performativity and Representation”. In De, Aparajita (ed.). South Asian Racialization and Belonging after 9/11: Masks of Threat. Lexington Books.