If I had a list of ten favorite portraits, this would be on it, and near the top.
First of all, the subject looks intelligent and dignified; but that’s the way most sitters wanted themselves represented.
So, second: in the seventeenth century (and even in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth), it’s rare to see a anyone of African descent painted sympathetically, never mind as intelligent and dignified. Points to Velazquez for a brilliant depiction of his workshop assistant Juan de Pareja, who was his slave when this painting was created. Velazquez freed Pareja in 1654, four years after the painting was first displayed.
And third: as a portrait, this is a phenomenal work, and it gave new options to portrait painters. The background is empty, brown – but look at the way the light is adjusted to highlight the sitter’s face, and the way the sharp white of the lace collar sets off the head and neck, and picks up the white of his eyes and the highlights on his brow and cheekbones. Velazquez clearly chose the color scheme to complement Juan de Pareja’s complexion: if you Photoshopped a Caucasian face in this painting, the colors wouldn’t work.
Juan de Pareja became a painter in his own right. This is his Calling of St. Matthew, 1661. He’s painted himself in the center background, behind the person in the white ruff.
- This blogger looks at Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja and sees anguish and anger. I suspect those are more in his head than in Juan’s, since the blogger doesn’t support his case by citing details of the painting.
- The Metropolitan Museum acquired Juan de Pareja in 1971. The price of $5.5 million set a record at the time for a painting sold at auction.
- More than a decade ago, I enjoyed reading Trevino’s I, Juan de Pareja with my daughter. If time were infinite (or even a bit more abundant), I’d reread it.