The MET Celebrates Afrohispanic Painter Juan De Pareja With A
The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened the first institutional exhibition dedicated to Juan de Pareja, the first Afro-Hispanic painter, featuring an unprecedented selection of works accompanied by an illustrated monograph.
Juan De Pareja (ca. 1608–1670) is known as the sitter of the iconic portrait painted by Diego Velázquez in 1650 in Rome, commissioned by Philip IV during a royal stay. The life story of Pareja remained largely overlooked until 1926, when Black Puertorican, Harlem Renaissance collector and scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg embarked on a fieldwork trip to Seville, Granada and Madrid (Spain). There he began to reconstruct the dynamics of Spain’s multiracial society at the time of Pareja, in which people of African descent played a crucial, if unrecognized, role. The outcome of his research is presented in the exhibition thanks to a series of loans from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. These include his landmark essay The Negro Digs Up His Past, as well as photographs and other volumes.
Velázquez’s painting entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection in 1971 for a then-record of $5.5m and there has been since. Today with the exhibition Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter (3 March–16 July 2023)—housed in the Robert Lehman wing (galleries 955 and 960-62)—the Museum aims to coronate Pareja as one of the first European artists of African descent. It is doing so by recovering his story and linking the evidence of enslaved artisans labour, and the vivid multiracial society inhabiting Spain’s “Golden Age”, to the major Western aesthetic movement—and particularly from the Medieval to the Early Modern cultural and religious heritage.
In fact, alongside Velázquez’s, this period saw many other Spanish artists portraying people of African and Morisco (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity after 1492) descents across disciplines, media and techniques.
In a recent article on The Art Newspaper, guest curator Vanessa K. Valdés said: “Schomburg was writing only several decades after the abolition of enslavement here in the United States, in a country intent on denying Black history. For Schomburg, the importance of Pareja was not only that he existed, and as an accomplished artist in his own right, but also that he was part of a larger narrative that centred Black achievement.”
Today we know that Juan de Pereira was born in Antequera in Andalusia (Spain), his biographical accounts are still unclear and enriched by myth due to the novelty of the scholarly work that has been done on him. However, major research states that his mother had most likely been an enslaved woman of African descent and there are solid records proving he came to the Velázquez family’s service by purchase at some point in his life.
Pareja was enslaved for nearly twenty years in Velázquez’s studio where he used to prepare pigments and varnishes, clean brushes stretch and prime canvases. The success achieved since the portrait’s first exhibition in the Pantheon, and the realism of his complex identity—which made evident his dignity and humanity in opposition to the yielding state of ownership, prompted Velázquez himself to advocate for his assistant’s manumission once he returns to Spain. Still, Pareja’s freedom didn’t occur immediately, four years of apprentice had passed before he could legally be considered free.
In 1964, Pareja was finally emancipated and started creating his painting style, finding more lineation in the Madrid School and the Venetian colour palette. He worked independently until he died in 1670.
The show includes over 40 pieces: a rarely seen collection of Pareja’s paintings retrieved thanks to Schomburg’s prestigious research work and several museum temporary loans (from Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and Museo de Bellas Artes de València, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, and The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida), in dialogue with multiple Velázquez’s masterpieces, manuscripts and historic documents, sculptures and refined decorative art objects by Spanish artists, such as Francisco de Zurbarán, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, José Montes de Oca and Pedro de la Cuadra and others.
The majority of Pareja’s paintings on view, like The Flight into Egypt (1658) along with The Calling of Saint Matthew (1661) and The Baptism of Christ (1667), guide the visitor through his artistic journey which resonates within the Western creative canons and the African diaspora, whose narration and essential part in European culture this exhibition is attempting to prove. Of the three, The Calling of Saint Matthew, from Museo Nacional del Prado, which is by far his best-known work; on the left one can even see the artist’s full self-portrait whose figure can be easily compared to the painting that made him notorious.
The exhibition is made possible thanks to the support of several institutions, sponsors and donors, particularly the Sherman Fairchild Foundation and Denise Sobel, and with an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. Additional funding is provided by Laura and John Arnold, Fundación María Cristina Masaveu Peterson, Ann M. Spruill and Daniel H. Cantwell, and The Met’s Fund for Diverse Art Histories. Sobel’s contribution consented to publish the illustrated catalogue, the first scholarly monograph on Pareja—available for purchase online—which includes 14 paintings firmly attributed to him, some possible attributions and over 30 unprecedented seen works.
Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter, curated by David Pullins and Vanessa K. Valdés, with the important contribution of Arturo Schomburg will be open until July 16, 2023.
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