The Many Ghosts of Juan de Pareja

A Painter Himself

Juan de Pareja and the entangled histories of art and slavery.

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The Black figure is currently in a sustained spotlight. For some time now, curators, scholars, and critics have wrestled with the representation of people of African descent in art, grappling with the interpretive problems and possibilities presented by subjects who were once objects, cargo, and commodities. The rise of a Black figurative turn in contemporary art reflects this interest. In the past six years, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, and Toyin Ojih Odutola—all of whom have made Black figures their central subject—have each had a solo exhibition at a major museum.

Galleries, too, have capitalized on the Black figure’s new presence in the public eye. Business has been particularly brisk among art institutions seeking to remediate the relentless whiteness of their holdings. And many museums have followed suit, mining their own collections for Black subjects and engaging with paintings, prints, sculptures, and works of decorative art anew in their efforts to bring to light the histories of race, slavery, and colonialism. Such attention has been a long time in coming.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a portrait by Diego Velázquez has served as a starting point for a new exhibition and catalog exploring the tangled history of art production, race, and enslaved labor. The portrait, completed in 1650, shows a man named Juan de Pareja. Captured in a dignified pose, he meets our gaze with a sensitive regard. The fluid and shimmering brushwork of Velázquez evokes the light gleaming on Pareja’s brow and glinting from his dark eyes. He appears in the dress of a Spanish nobleman, with a broad lace collar and a sash across his chest. Yet while nothing in the painting would suggest it, the power that Velázquez holds over Pareja exceeds the typical relationship of artist to subject or portraitist to sitter. Velázquez, the Old Master, is a master in another sense: the master of the man he has painted, who is his slave.

In their 2013 book Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal ask: If the Western visual tradition insists on portraiture’s affirmation of the subject, can there really be a portrait of a slave? Or do portraits of enslaved individuals intrinsically undermine the objectifying project of slavery? Pareja’s dignified presence here stands as a visual counterpoint to what typically turns up in the search for Black figures in collections of European art: fantastically attired blackamoor pages, sometimes with silver slave collars, crouching at the knees of the white subjects of European portraiture, offering a tonal contrast between ethereal whiteness and inky blackness, and a conceptual contrast between power and subservience, dominance and subjugation. Unlike these anonymous Black figures, however, Pareja has a history. He was a painter himself. After his manumission, he went on to found his own workshop as a free man, executing paintings that were displayed in the private and ecclesiastical spaces of Madrid. Several major examples of his work appear in the Met’s exhibition alongside paintings attributed to Velázquez, many of which reflect Pareja’s contributions to the Old Master’s output. Also in the exhibit are polychrome sculptures, metalwork, and ceramics that further reveal the breadth of enslaved and emancipated artistic labor in 17th-century Spain. Together, these works allow us to glimpse the milieu into which Pareja entered, first as enslaved assistant and then as independent artist.

We don’t know a great deal about Juan de Pareja—but then again, we know more about him than we do many other European artists of the early modern period, some of whom we can name only with epithets like “Master of Ávila” or (a personal favorite) “Master of the Drapery Studies.” In his catalog essay, David Pullins, a curator of the exhibition alongside Vanessa K. Valdés, lays out what we do know of Pareja’s life. Born around 1608 in Antequera, a small city about 90 miles west of Seville, he was perhaps the child of a Spanish man and an enslaved African woman, or then again maybe a Morisco, a descendant of the North African Muslims who were forcibly converted to Catholicism after the end of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula. He was a member of a substantial population of enslaved men, women, and children of African descent living and working in Spanish urban centers, where it was common for households to own one or two, but usually not more than three, slaves. His duties in Velázquez’s workshop would have included grinding pigments and preparing canvases—but as the show reveals, he also made far more significant contributions to the paintings that today bear his master’s name.

What does it mean for a slave to make art? Can a person who has been designated the property of another exercise creative genius? These questions animate early accounts of Pareja’s life. In a narrative published in 1724, Antonio Palomino, Pareja’s first biographer, has him laboring on his own paintings in secret while enslaved in Velázquez’s workshop. “His Master,” Palomino writes, “(for the Honour of the Art) wou’d never suffer him to meddle with Painting or Drawing.” According to Palomino’s account, which would be repeated in countless other sources, Pareja, after contriving to have his paintings gain the attention of Velázquez’s patron, King Philip IV of Spain, immediately fell upon his knees and begged for his freedom. A man “who had such a Talent,” the king proclaimed, “cou’d not be a Slave.” In reality, this story was almost certainly fabricated—Pareja was manumitted in Rome in 1650 while traveling with Velázquez to acquire works of art for the king’s collection.

Other myths have sprung up around Pareja. One account alleges that he married Velázquez’s daughter following his manumission. In another, he dies in a duel defending the life of his former owner’s son. These evocations of the trope of the faithful slave, bound to his master by ties of love and gratitude, are central to the figure of the enslaved artist, a popular character in the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries and one that still holds our attention today. Similar tropes have yielded a misshapen understanding of the work of another enslaved artist, the South Carolinian David Drake, also known as “Dave the Potter,” whose monumental earthenware pots, many inscribed with his own verse, were also featured in a recent Met exhibition. Drake’s vessels, which attest to his artistry, literacy, and technical skill, have been read as evidence of the benevolence and permissiveness of his owners. It is an unfortunate fact that art produced under conditions of enslavement is vulnerable to such troubling co-optations. Even more quotidian forms of expression did not escape a similar fate: As pro-slavery histories, newspapers, and pamphlets show, the song and dance of the enslaved were reconfigured to signify their health and happiness under the beneficial reign of the plantocracy.

As this exhibition and its catalog unravel the fictions surrounding the figure of the enslaved artist, they also challenge the myth of the Old Masters, Velázquez in particular. Today, painting is regarded as a noble practice, an unimpeachable art whose products reflect the impassioned artistic labor and prodigious talents of an individual genius. Yet it has enjoyed this position only since the 18th century. In Velázquez’s era, the status of painting was more fraught. His own career reflects his attempts to secure for his profession the status of art. Then and now, the presence of slaves in the painter’s workshop complicates the possibility of a clear distinction between artistic and manual labor. In one of the exhibition catalog’s most illuminating essays, Luis Méndez Rodríguez demonstrates the centrality of enslaved labor to the production of both fine art and luxury goods in Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. Indeed, he writes, the artistic or artisan workshop was the most common context for slavery in early modern Spain, a fact that has gone unacknowledged in art histories of this golden age of painting. Juan de Pareja’s presence in Velázquez’s workshop represented the rule, not the exception.

Identifying enslaved labor as a condition of production for paintings in this period helps return these works of art to the realm of the commodity. As if to underscore this point, the exhibition displays several objects of luxury manufacture—a silver basin and ewer, an example of the large footed platter known as a tazza—alongside work by Velázquez, Pareja, and other Spanish painters. Such wares, like painting, represent a high level of technical skill and material facility, and they were also brought into being through slave labor (a catalog entry notes that silversmiths were among the most likely to own slaves of all the members of the artisan trades). The inclusion of these luxury goods, which need no conceptual assistance to be considered commodities, levels the received hierarchies between the fine and decorative arts. Yet their presence alongside the exhibition’s paintings raises other questions having to do with valuation. How should we reevaluate Velázquez’s oeuvre in light of Pareja’s contribution to it?

Such reflections might lead us to more literal questions about the value, or price, of Pareja’s work. In 1970, Velázquez’s portrait of Pareja broke art world records as the first painting to sell for over £1 million. A year later, it sold for well beyond that when the Met acquired it for $5.5 million ($41 million in today’s dollars). Pareja’s paintings have fetched orders of magnitude less. Following this exhibition, however, any privately owned works are sure to appreciate considerably in value. The market is good for Black figures and the work of certain Black artists. In 2017, decades after his death, a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat became the most expensive American work of art ever sold at auction when it brought $110.5 million. And in this moment of reevaluations and accompanying revaluations, there has been something of a run on David Drake’s pots. Crystal Bridges, the Arkansas museum founded by the Walmart heiress Alice Walton, acquired an especially large example for $1.56 million in 2021, which became a record for the sale of American pottery at auction. It is surely significant that museums are willing to shell out to bring the work of Black artists into their collections, and that many such works are leaving private hands to enter public institutions, even while it is troubling to reflect on where the profits end up (not with Drake’s descendants). Maybe it’s not surprising or even remarkable that slavery continues to produce profit today, as the fact of an artist’s enslavement now attaches significant value to their work. But it feels poignant.

So what about Pareja’s work? Was he a good painter? New York Times critic at large Jason Farago judged the paintings that appear in the Met’s exhibition “fine if not remarkable specimens of the later Spanish Baroque,” adding that “in Velázquez’s company, just about anyone else will look second-tier.” Fair enough. But is aesthetic evaluation perhaps beside the point, given the remarkable facts of Pareja’s biography? For this exhibition’s curators, the answer is no. Up to this point, Pareja’s paintings have only rarely been considered as anything other than curiosities—paintings by a former slave—or mere evidence of his artistic practice. Our task now is to see them as works of art in their own right.

At nearly 11 feet, The Calling of Saint Matthew is a substantial painting. Although little is known about the circumstances of its commission, it is unlikely that Pareja would have produced such a massive work on speculation; someone hired him to make it. The Spanish art market was lively at the time, due in no small part to the influx of silver from colonial mines in Central and South America. The painting is compositionally dense and displays the alternating vibrant jewel-like tones and somber shadows of Spanish art. Amid the luxuries of a contemporary Madrid interior, the biblical Levi, a tax collector, sits with equally richly dressed compatriots at a long table covered in a Persian rug too precious for the floor. From the left enters Christ, who beckons to Levi, calling him into discipleship as the apostle Matthew. At the far left, a figure in the dress of a Spanish aristocrat gazes out at us. It is Pareja, who has represented himself here in a full-length self-portrait that is both in dialogue with and a departure from his former master’s earlier painting. His presence in this room, his confident demeanor and casual stance, his assertion of authorship as he displays a piece of paper bearing his signature and the date of the painting’s execution—all suggest that he has secured the right to self-representation.

It may be more complicated. Scholars writing as far back as 1888, comparing Velázquez’s painting and Pareja’s self-portrait, have suggested that in the latter, the former slave’s features appear more European—the nose and lips narrower, the skin tone lighter. Does this represent an assimilationist, racial self-fashioning on Pareja’s part? Or, as the scholar Carmen Fracchia has suggested, might this change echo the conversion that is the subject of this painting: the transformation of the Jewish Levi into the Christian Matthew? When it debuted in Rome, Velázquez’s portrait of Pareja was marveled at for its verisimilitude. Indeed, the portrait’s first viewers were invited to directly compare the representation with its original. Velázquez ordered Pareja to carry his own portrait to potential patrons, enlisting his slave in his project of self-promotion. According to a contemporary source, the portrait “received such universal acclaim that in the opinion of all the painters of different nations everything else looked like painting, this alone looked like truth.” And yet Pareja’s own self-portrait looks different—and we are not left with a clear answer as to why. Any claim that the former slave “Europeanized” his features in his self-portrait runs the risk of positioning the master Velázquez, the more celebrated painter by far, as the authority on Pareja’s appearance, rather than Pareja himself. Without additional images of Pareja, nothing conclusive can be said here. Except perhaps that when we compare these portraits, we ourselves, without meaning to, enter a kind of racializing thinking through this identificatory attempt. To treat the surface and form of the body, even as it appears in art, as a legible document from which information about identity can be extracted—this is at the heart of the racializing project.

If, in racist thought, the appearance of the Black body is evidence of inferiority, the work of Black artists and the appearance of the Black figure in visual art have served as a kind of counter-archive evincing dignity, beauty, talent, and skill—personhood, in short. “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1926. “Until the art of the black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.” Both historical and contemporary art have been enlisted in this counter-archive.

In the 1960s, in the midst of the civil rights movement, the collector and philanthropist John de Menil and his wife, Dominique Schlumberger de Menil, began assembling records of Western artworks featuring Black figures. They conceived of their archive as an anti-racist undertaking, deploying examples of Black figures in painting, sculpture, and decorative art against the segregationist political project.

Such moments in art history document the unique pressures under which Black art operates. It seems that works of art by Black artists or representing Black figures cannot simply be, but instead must do something, either by serving as an argument in the struggle against racism or by pointing the way toward a liberated future. Yet we must also understand Black art as objects worthy of aesthetic contemplation. At the Met and in her catalog essay, cocurator Vanessa K. Valdés tries to balance these dual tasks by inviting us to encounter Pareja alongside the historian and archivist of Black culture Arturo Schomburg, whose essays on Pareja and the broader history and significance of Black art appear in the first gallery of the exhibition and whose approach to the artist suggests a middle ground between the demands of the Black political movement and the impossible ideal of Black art for its own sake.

Born in Puerto Rico when it was still a Spanish colony, Schomburg moved to New York in 1891, where he began to collect books and documents attesting to the artistic, literary, and political history of Black people. His was a truly critical project. It was not enough to simply name and celebrate Black artists and writers and political leaders from the past—such attempts, he noted, were “pathetically over-corrective, ridiculously over-laudatory,” “apologetics turned into biography.” Instead, Schomburg sought to create an archive that would lay a foundation for considered engagement with the Black past as a path toward an emancipated future.

Pareja was among the artists Schomburg focused on. His essays describe Pareja as a member of a school, active within a network of patronage, and with a style that had national and international precedents. In treating Pareja’s career as a matter for serious art-historical inquiry, Schomburg asserted that the artist’s life and work were of as much significance as those of any number of other Western painters—even if they also held a particular meaning and special poignancy for Black people. The Met carries on this quietly radical project, building on Schomburg’s research and treating his encounter with Pareja as an authoritative source for contemporary interpretations of the artist’s work. The exhibition’s catalog is an entry into the storied tradition of the artist’s monograph—a text dedicated to the life and career of a single artist—and includes the first-ever catalogue raisonné, or complete listing, of works by Pareja. Such texts are essential for meaningful engagements with art and artists, for the complex, rigorous investigation that painters like Velázquez have received. But essential as well is the simple act of looking, of opening oneself to aesthetic experience—and in many ways, the Met show comes full circle in this regard. When, in 1926, the New York Public Library acquired Schomburg’s archive, he used the proceeds to travel to Europe, where, arriving in Spain, he sought out The Calling of Saint Matthew, sat, and gazed at Pareja’s work.

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