A New Exhibition Rewrites The Story Of A Once Enslaved 17 Century Artist

In 1650, Diego Velázquez was a Spanish leading artist in the court of King Philip IV of Spain and Portugal, and of the Spanish Golden Age. He had just exhibited a portrait in the Pantheon’s domed interior. The painting was based on Juan de Pareja, an Andalusian man who was enslaved and serving as Velázquez’s studio assistant. This wasn’t a common piece especially a formal portrait of a man of African heritage in Western art at the time. A previous biographer of Velázquez stated the artist sent Pareja around Rome, with the painting in hand, to show it off to his acquaintances.

Many shared the fact that they could not tell who appeared more real and Pareja became an overnight celebrity.

Soon after, he was freed from slavery and became an accomplished artist in his own right in Madrid. Therefore, he remained an elusive figure within art history, with details of his life prone to myth, his paintings were exhibited with no more than two of his pieces ever being displayed in the same place.

Pareja is now receiving his largest show to date at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York “Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic Painter.” Five of his paintings along with those from his contemporaries, and Velázquez, will also be incorporated to show a fuller picture of his life. The artworks will include Pareja’s most famous painting, “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” a 1661 religious scene in which he inserted a self-portrait making direct eye contact with viewers, a tradition incorporated into paintings by other Old Masters including Raphael and Velázquez.

“Our role here is to try to set a foundation — to open up paths for others to pursue, because actually, there’s a huge amount more that I think can be known. Hopefully, (the process of) filling out his life and biography will have only just begun.”

David Pullins stated, an associate curator of European paintings at the museum, of Pareja.

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