Text by Deanna MacDonald
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As the court artist of Philip IV of Spain, Velázquez painted many portraits; but none were quite like this one. In 1649 Velázquez traveled to Italy on the king’s behalf to collect works of art for the Alcazar Palace in Madrid. During his extended stay in Rome, the centre of the art world at the time, Velázquez painted two portraits of two extremely different men yet both caused a sensation: one was an official portrait of Pope Innocent X (today in the Galeria Doria Pamphili, Rome) and the second was of a much humbler but no less striking subject: Velázquez’s assistant, Juan de Pareja (c1610–1670). According to the artist and writer Palomino in his Life of Velázquez (1724), when the portrait of Pareja was exhibited at the Pantheon in Rome on March 19, 1650, it was ‘applauded by all the painters from different countries, who said that the other pictures in the show were art but this one alone was “truth.”’
About 40 years of age in this picture, Pareja was a Sevillian of Moorish descent and a slave, whom Velázquez had inherited from a relative. He had been working in Veláquez’s studio since the 1630s and soon after this portrait was made, Pareja was given his freedom. He would stay on in Velázquez’s studio, working as a painter. Some of Pareja’s art is today found in various collections, including the Prado in Madrid and in the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
Why did Velázquez decide to paint Pareja’s portrait? There are several theories. According to Palomino, Velázquez painted his assistant as practise in depicting a head from life before painting the pope. However, the composition bears no resemblance to that of the papal portrait and considering this portrait’s penetrating immediacy and brilliant execution, it is hard to image Velázquez considered it a mere exercise.
Velázquez, freed from the more formal structure of state portraiture, here seems focused on painting a person rather than a status; he does not include attributes of the sitter’s identity or rank, nor props or drapery to set the stage. Pareja’s clothes are the same somber hues as the plain background that serves to highlight his face, which is bathed in light and framed by a white lace collar (finery not usually worn by a servant and which Velázquez must have added for effect). He gazes out at the viewer with startling directness and quiet assurance. The result is a virtuoso portrait of an individual; a masterpiece, depicting Velázquez’s assistant (and one suspects, friend) with a dignity no less than that of a king.
Another anecdote related by Palomino suggests another reason Velázquez painted Pareja. Before officially exhibiting the painting, Velázquez, supposedly had Pareja himself carry it around to some influential Roman acquaintances. ‘They stood staring at the painted canvas, and then at the original, with admiration and amazement, not knowing which they should address and which would answer them.’ With this little bit of theater, which he certainly could not have done with a royal sitter, Velázquez set out to dazzle his contemporaries with his illusionism.
Not that they needed much convincing. Velázquez had been the king’s painter and personal friend since he joined his court in 1623 and he was widely celebrated in his own time. As most of his works remained in the royal palaces for which they were made, few people saw them until the Napoleonic wars dispersed some of Velázquez’s paintings throughout northern Europe. Juan de Pareja remained in Italy in the Ruffo family collection, until sold to an English lord in the late 18th century. Today Velázquez is considered the greatest Spanish painter of his century, perhaps of any century, a status reflected in his extraordinary auction prices: Juan de Pareja cost the Met a record $5.5 million in 1970.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1648 Philippe de Champaigne: The Last Supper, Paris, Musée du Louvre
c1650 Aelbert Cuyp: Dordrecht, Sunrise, New York, Frick Collection