The Legacy of Afro-Hispanic Painter Juan de Pareja: A Journey from Enslavement to Artistic Excellence

KEY TAKEAWAYS
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been actively working on decolonizing its collection, repatriating artworks to their countries of origin, and reevaluating the histories told and the artists represented in the museum.
The "Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic Painter" exhibition aims to bring attention to the life and works of Juan de Pareja, a once-enslaved artist who became a celebrated painter during Spain's Golden Age.
The exhibition provides a foundation for further research into Pareja's life and artistic contributions, while also shedding light on the role of slave labor in Spain's art and culture during its Golden Age.
The exhibition has the potential to inspire further investigation into the lives and works of other marginalized artists throughout history, setting a precedent for other museums and cultural institutions to reassess their collections and consider the stories that may have been overlooked or ignored.
By uncovering the hidden talents and contributions of artists like Pareja, museums and galleries can work towards a more inclusive understanding of art history that encompasses a variety of perspectives and experiences.

 

Decolonizing Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been actively working on decolonizing its collection, repatriating artworks to their countries of origin.

This initiative has resulted in the return of several artifacts to countries such as Nigeria, India, Nepal, Italy, and Egypt.

Part of this decolonization process includes reevaluating the histories told and the artists represented in the museum.

The Met’s exhibition, “Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic Painter,” curated by David Pullins and Vanessa K. Valdés, aims to bring attention to the life and works of Juan de Pareja, a once-enslaved artist.

An Unlikely Journey to Fame

Juan de Pareja (1608-1670) is best known as the subject of a painting by Diego Velázquez. Velázquez, also Pareja’s artistic master and enslaver, took Pareja with him to Rome in 1650 on a mission to purchase artworks for the Spanish king.

Velázquez’s portrait of Pareja was created during this journey, and it showcased the master’s artistic skills. After their Italian tour, Velázquez granted Pareja his freedom.

The Manumission Document

One of the most striking items in the exhibition is neither a painting nor a sculpture, but the manumission document discovered accidentally in a Roman archive in 1983 by Jennifer Montagu.

The document tells the story of Pareja’s emancipation, though the details of his initial enslavement remain unknown.

The Exhibition Layout

The exhibition is organized into four sections. The first section highlights the scholarly work of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938), a Black Puerto Rican intellectual who was among the first to explore Pareja’s background.

The second section delves into the multiracial communities of enslaved and freed Africans in early modern Seville, offering context for Pareja’s art.

The third section showcases Velázquez’s portrait of Pareja, a portrait attributed to Pareja, and the manumission document.

The final section displays a collection of large-scale religious paintings by Pareja and his Spanish contemporaries.

Stylistic Transformation

The exhibition emphasizes the personal and stylistic changes in Pareja’s life after gaining his freedom from Velázquez. Pareja’s large-scale religious works—The Flight into Egypt (1658), The Calling of Saint Matthew (1661), and The Baptism of Christ (1667)—display a clear departure from Velázquez’s style, showcasing a more vibrant and jubilant palette.

The exhibition emphasizes the personal and stylistic changes in Pareja’s life after gaining his freedom from Velázquez. Pareja’s large-scale religious works—The Flight into Egypt (1658), The Calling of Saint Matthew (1661), and The Baptism of Christ (1667)—display a clear departure from Velázquez’s style, showcasing a more vibrant and jubilant palette.

Connecting to Schomburg

Arturo Schomburg’s research and efforts helped recover Pareja’s identity as an Afro-Hispanic painter.

Schomburg, a political activist, essayist, archivist, and world traveler, amassed extensive collections of books, documents, and artifacts that attest to the presence of Black excellence throughout history.

Uncovering Pareja’s Life and Art

The Met’s exhibition aims to provide a foundation for further research into Pareja’s life and artistic contributions.

Many details about his life and family background are still unknown, including the identities of his wealthy patrons, who likely supported his large-scale works.

The exhibition also seeks to highlight the differences between Pareja’s artistic style and that of Velázquez, dispelling the misconception that Pareja merely emulated his former master.

Revealing the Role of Slave Labor in the Golden Age

The curators hope the exhibition will not only elevate Pareja’s profile but also emphasize the role of slave labor in Spain’s art and culture during its Golden Age. Pareja was part of an invisible class of workers who contributed to the era’s paintings, sculptures, pottery, and textiles. 

By recognizing Pareja’s talent and the many other enslaved artists whose stories remain untold, the exhibition aims to shed light on the complexities of art production and the people who played a crucial role in creating Spain’s artistic heritage.

Educational Programs and Outreach

In addition to the exhibition, The Met has planned a series of educational programs and outreach events to engage the public in conversations about Pareja’s life, work, and the broader context of Afro-Hispanic art.

These programs include lectures, workshops, guided tours, and symposiums featuring international scholars, historians, and artists.

By fostering dialogue and encouraging critical thinking, the museum aims to deepen the understanding of Spain’s colonial past and its impact on the art world.

Potential Impact on the Art World

The “Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic Painter” exhibition has the potential to inspire further investigation into the lives and works of other enslaved artists throughout history.

By elevating the profile of Pareja and acknowledging his artistic excellence, the exhibition sets a precedent for other museums and cultural institutions to reassess their collections and consider the stories that may have been overlooked or ignored.

Moreover, the exhibition serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of diversity and representation in the art world.

By uncovering the hidden talents and contributions of artists like Pareja, museums and galleries can work towards a more inclusive understanding of art history that encompasses a variety of perspectives and experiences.

Conclusion

The groundbreaking exhibition at The Met is an important step in decolonizing art history and acknowledging the contributions of previously marginalized artists like Juan de Pareja.

By examining Pareja’s life, his journey from enslavement to artistic excellence, and the context in which he lived and worked, the exhibition offers a fresh perspective on Spain’s Golden Age and the role of enslaved artists in shaping its artistic legacy.

As cultural institutions around the world work to reevaluate their collections and the narratives they present, the story of Juan de Pareja serves as a powerful reminder of the need for ongoing research and dialogue to ensure that the art world truly reflects the rich tapestry of human history and creativity.

Craig Miller

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