Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter
On ViewMetropolitan Museum Of Art
Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter
April 3–July 16, 2023
The Met’s riveting new exhibition, Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter, is a curious amalgam. Although the show does present a selection of Pareja’s paintings, offering an overview of his little-known oeuvre for the first time, it is far from being a traditional, single-artist exhibition. Beyond the work of Pareja, it is concerned with the ideas that have come to be attached to him. For Juan de Pareja (ca. 1608–70), an enslaved painter of African descent living in so-called Golden Age Spain, never had anything like the liberty of life and work enjoyed by his freeborn, white countrymen. Instead, Pareja has long been a symbol, asked to carry agendas that were not necessarily his own. As a result, this exhibition, which explores these projections, can feel like three or four shows rolled up into one.
It was Pareja’s enslaver, the renowned painter Diego Velázquez, who first made him famous by the very act of depicting him. In fact, Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja (1650), displayed at the center of the exhibition, became a landmark of European painting, its reception engineered in part by its audacious presentation. Accounts tell that Velázquez had Pareja carry this portrait around Rome, offering prominent viewers the chance to make a direct comparison between the sitter and the simulacrum. The result was a sensation. It appears that Velázquez knew his Roman audience, picking up where Caravaggio had left off by deploying his intense observation of non-elite persons with the understanding that they would appear all the more “real” for being “low” in contemporary estimation.
Some of Velázquez’s most notable commissions, several of which are displayed with Juan de Pareja, arose directly from this event. Across from the Pareja is a version of the remarkable Pope Innocent X (ca. 1651), which inspired so many nightmarish works by Francis Bacon. Upon seeing Velázquez’s likeness, the irascible pope allegedly exclaimed “It’s too real!” (He was not wrong: I feel intimidated in this portrait’s presence.) As for Velázquez’s Pareja, the painted sitter displays the natural reserve and bearing of a born king. It is hard to square the idea of “slave” with such a dignified countenance, an incompatibility that lends credence to the romantic idea that Velázquez discovered Pareja’s humanity in the act of painting him. It is a matter of record that Velázquez began the process of freeing Pareja at this time, as evidenced by the manumission document displayed nearby. With freedom on the horizon, Pareja entered history as the archetype of Velázquez’s trenchant realism.
Made visible by a painting that was not his own, Pareja readily represents other historical groups such as the Black and enslaved artisans of early modern Spain. In one exhibition space, we learn about the prominent presence of slavery in Spanish cities like Seville, the sought-after artistic skills of many enslaved people, as well as those free, white artists, like Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, who owned and made use of the enslaved in their workshops (Murillo enslaved five: his oftentimes saccharine figures, some exhibited here, will never look the same again). Like the three versions of Velázquez’s Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus (ca. 1617–18), which represents a Black servant obliquely witnessing the biblical miracle from a pantry, the art in this section of the exhibition likewise illustrates the period elite’s concern with the Catholicization of the Afro-Hispanic underclasses—enslaved Africans were forcibly baptized en masse upon arrival in Spain. To this end, new imagery was introduced alongside new saints, models for belief among a literally captive audience. One spectacular example, a polychrome wood sculpture Saint Benedict of Palermo (ca. 1734) by José Montes de Oca, shows how compelling such imagery could be, in this case exploiting the striking juxtaposition of the monochrome black of the saint’s flesh with the gold of his splendid robes.
Entwined with these two narratives is yet another involving the Harlem Renaissance intellectual Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. A Puerto Rican New Yorker of African and German heritage, Schomburg understood that Pareja demonstrated not only how Black people had a history but also that they were longtime citizens of the republic of arts and letters. On a quest to deepen his understanding, Schomburg traveled to Spain in 1926. Filling a small room are Schomburg’s picture albums with photographs and notes from his journey; elsewhere quotations from his writings on Pareja punctuate the exhibition walls. In this pioneering historian the Met curators found their muse, his voice mingling with theirs throughout the exhibition.
In this charged environment, it can be difficult to judge dispassionately Pareja’s own work. Although most of it strikes this observer as solid, Pareja also had real moments of excellence. Certainly, his portraits are impressive performances, effectively marrying description and characterization as in his likeness of the court architect José Ratés Dalmau (1660s). His best painting, Calling of Saint Matthew (1661), abounds in visual interest, combining contemporary portraits (including a self-portrait on the left) and more conventional historical figures in a well-observed and luxurious contemporary setting. In this respect, it resembles Velázquez’s own religious paintings. But there is much here that is personal. Pareja’s full-length self-portrait compositionally counterbalances the figure of Christ himself; Pareja’s looks out at us, as if to fix our attention on the scene. As the catalogue suggests, in depicting the story of how St. Matthew is called to a new life, Pareja may have found an allegory for his own agency and transformation. It is a work of spirit and ambition.
In featuring Pareja’s own paintings, the exhibition rights a wrong simply by listening to the artist’s voice. But it also seems to admit it cannot undo the larger injustices of history or make this fine painter into a great one (I assume this is why Pareja’s own work does not occupy the show’s central room). The result of knowing Pareja better is not necessarily his canonization, but an awareness that canonization depends on more than an individual talent working alone. The reflections that follow from this point are topical. For to seek Pareja in an exhibition is to ask about the ultimate purposes of the art museum itself. Should the museum present a canon with the goal of providing critical or aesthetic contemplation, or should it do something else, breaking up canons, while preferring broader historical and cultural ruminations? This show suggests that museums, seeking to find their way today, may well have to do all these things at once, although some will surely stagger under the weight of the inherent contradictions. It is a tall order, and a delicate balance. Let us wait in hope that it can be managed so effectively again.