Judith, the Pope and the slave

10 Nov

Este es un artista con una historia inusual e interesante. Y una pintura que sería más interesante para visitar.

Juan de Pareja, “Judith,” c.1630-70, Oil on canvas, 203 x 132 cm, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, Cuba

Interesting and unusual artist. Interesting and unusual location.

The Artist.  The story of the artist begins with another artist, Diego Velázquez – a Spanish painter who was the leading painter in the court of King Philip IV and a model for later painters such as Manet, Picasso and Dalí.  With the goal of estabilshing a Spanish academy of art, King Philip IV sent Velázquez to Italy in 1650 to purchase works.   During his visit to Rome, he painted one of his most famous portraits, Pope Innocent X.   In preparation for this portrait and as an example of his work, Velázquez also painted another famous portrait of his manservant, Juan de Pareja.

What irony.  The Prince of the Catholic Church and a man who was probably born enslaved.

Diego Velázquez, “Portrait of Innocent X,” c.1650, Oil on canvas, 141 x 119 cm, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome, Italy

Diego Velázquez, “Portrait of Juan de Pareja,” 1650,Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 69.9 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, USA

Juan de Pareja was a mulatto man, born in Seville around the year 1610.   He was described as a Morisco – “of mixed heritage and a strange color (1)” – meaning either a descendant of Muslims or the offspring of a Spaniard and a mulatto.  The latter usage would apply since Pareja’s mother was a slave named Zulema and his father, whom he never met, was thought to have been a white Spaniard.   Pareja was orphaned at age five when his mother died, and was taken in by his master’s mistress – the aunt of Diego Velasquez, who inherited Juan following his aunt’s death (2).   Other sources say Pareja must have been a servant to Diego Velasquez because it was illegal at the time to teach painting to a slave. However,

 This man was technically a slave; we still have the document of manumission with which Velazquez formally set him free.(3)(4)

According to some accounts, Velázquez would not let Pareja even pick up a paintbrush, but he watched in the master’s studio and practiced drawing in secret.  On an occasion when the king of Spain was due to visit, Pareja placed one of his own paintings on an easel.  When the king came across it, Pareja threw himself at the king’s feet, told him how he had learned to paint without his master’s knowledge, and begged him to intercede on his behalf. In response, Philip said “any man who has this skill cannot be a slave” and Velázquez had to grant Pareja his freedom (5).  In any case, Juan de Pareja was granted his freedom in 1654 and stayed on in Velázquez’s studio, painting openly and quickly becoming an artist of considerable talent.

The Location.  Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, Cuba.   Any suggestions on how I might get there?

(1) Palomino, Antonio. The museum painting and optical scale III.  The picturesque Spanish Parnassus laureate. Madrid : Aguilar S.A. de Ediciones, 1988.
(2)  de Treviño, Elizabeth Borton. I, Juan de Pareja. NewYork, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1965.
(3)  The Artchive: Diego Velazquez, Juan de Pareja
(4)  Beckett, Sister Wendy. Sister Wendy’s American Masterpieces. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2001.
(5) The Artcyclopedia: Juan de Pareja.

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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Story


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