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Juan de Pareja

March 31, 2014




There was a time when I owned scores of books filled with art reproductions and biographies of the artists who created them. I didn’t care for many of these artists but I wanted to learn as much as I could about their creative philosophies. Eventually, I returned to those artists who time and again made my spirit soar by touching my heart instead of my brain. I’ve written many posts about art but now I’ll reveal my absolute favorite painting—Velasquez’ Portrait of Juan de Pareja. Although my personal favorite, it’s my belief that this is only the second greatest portrait ever painted. Why am I discussing the second greatest instead of the first? Let me explain.


Take a long hard look at the man in this painting. In spite of what appears to be a hole in his sleeve, notice the dignity, the nobility of character, the self-assured manner with which he glances at us—interesting since this Spaniard is of mixed heritage. Velasquez has not concealed the North African/Moorish background of his studio assistant. Yet this is hardly the gaze of someone lacking confidence. Velazquez depicts Pareja as any man’s equal, so it may come as a surprise to learn the subject of this painting, a man pulsing with intelligence and vitality, was technically a slave.


In 1648 Diego Velasquez was sent to Rome by his master, Phillip IV of Spain. Velazquez, first painter and personal friend of the King, was tasked with purchasing art for Phillip’s new palace in Madrid. He brought Pareja along with him. Velazquez, the greatest artist in Spain, was disappointed to learn he was totally unknown in Rome. He set out to rectify this. In 1650 a show of international artwork was being exhibited in Rome’s Pantheon. Velasquez dashed off a portrait of Pareja and had his servant carry the portrait to the exhibit as a calling card. The painting was applauded by all painters from different countries, with critics commenting, “…the other pictures in the show are art but this one alone is ‘truth’.”





They were amazed by Velazquez’ ability to depict form without distracting detail and impressed by masterful brushstrokes that never dissolved into excess or bravado. Notice the varied paint application in the black and white detail, thick enough in areas to crack, in others so thinly applied that the texture of the canvas is plainly visible. Instead of flaunting a colorful image of a proper gentleman in rich finery, Velazquez shows restraint in this nearly monochromatic painting.


It’s been said that every portrait, no matter who sits for it or pays for it, is a self-portrait reflecting the artist’s personality and creative philosophy. It’s hard not to feel the presence of Rubens or Rembrandt in everything they painted, but Velasquez, in my opinion, is the most successful at sublimating his own ego to that of the personality bring depicted. Instead of relying on a clever manipulation of paint, Velazquez steps back to allow the sheer power of Pareja’s humanity and personality to burst from the canvas. 




Juan de Pareja was officially freed by Velazquez on the anniversary of the death of the artist’s wife in 1654. Pareja had secretly learned to paint while grinding colors, stretching canvases and watching his master. Although he never acquired Velazquez’ unfathomable skill, he managed to produce work that even captured the attention of the King.


In 1971 the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased this portrait for 5.5 million dollars, an unheard of amount that today wouldn’t cover the cost of the frame. Mrs. Chatterbox and I were in New York in ‘72 and I was determined to lay my eyes on Juan de Pareja. We taxied to the museum after a night of freak rainstorms that flooded most of the subways. The museum was unable to open that morning. Most of the guards lived outside Manhattan and couldn’t make it to work.


Returning another day wasn’t an option so I begged the guard at the door to let us in. When he refused I demanded to speak to the museum’s director. I don’t know where I got the courage but the director actually came to the door. I explained that we’d come thousands of miles to see whether or not the museum had gotten its money’s worth by purchasing the last Velasquez in private hands. I can only imagine what he thought about the chubby, impudent twenty year old demanding to be let into his museum, but he smiled and ushered us in.


We trooped behind him through many dark corridors until he flipped a switch in a small room where Velazquez’ Portrait of Juan de Pareja awaited us. In the silence of that dark museum I felt my soul connecting with this long dead painter’s assistant. Eventually the director asked, “Do you think we got our money’s worth?”


Words failed me; I could only nod.


Next time I’ll reveal my selection for the greatest portrait ever painted, the one for which Pareja’s portrait served as a warm-up exercise. Prepare to be astonished.


I'll say they got their money's worth. If they sold it now it'd probably cost someone $150M.
By: PT Dilloway on March 31, 2014
I love your bravado....... The story behind the painting and your love it is enough to convince me. Are you sure you shouldn't have been in politics???? Oma Linda
By: Oma Linda on March 31, 2014
I'd be fibbing if I could tell the difference between great works or otherwise. I appreciate artwork in its various forms.
By: Daniel LaFrance on March 31, 2014
What a wonderful story. I wish I could have seen the picture with my own eyes. Is it still in New York and can a schlub like me go and take a look at it?
By: Michael Offutt on March 31, 2014
i love your passion for this portrait.
By: TexWisGirl on March 31, 2014
I wish I could have you with me whenever I visit an art museum! A few years ago I was fortunate enough to see the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of Velasquez's work. It was wonderful, but I am ashamed to say I do not remember if this portrait was among those shown...
By: The Broad on March 31, 2014
amazing painting- and I am waiting for you to teach Art History....I'll be there in the classroom!
By: Kathe W. on March 31, 2014
A fascinating background of an amazing painting!!
By: fishducky on March 31, 2014
Yes, he did catch more than a face. I like the calm displayed by this man. Yes, they got their money's worth.
By: red on March 31, 2014
The story behind the painting makes it that much more exquisite. Thanks for sharing both the story and the painting. xoRobyn
By: Robyn Engel on March 31, 2014
It is amazing -- i don't blame you for pushing your luck to get to see it in person.
By: mimi on March 31, 2014
Loved the story about the subject of the painting and was pleased that he was finally freed.The story adds so much and makes the painting appear different from my first impression..
By: Akansas Patti on March 31, 2014
Is it just me, or does the subject bare a resemblance to a certain Mr. Chubby Chatterbox?
By: CRANKY on March 31, 2014
It's so great that you got to see it, and that it still has such an effect on you all these years later.
By: Val on March 31, 2014
And New Yorkers have a reputation for being rude and cold-hearted. You put the lie to that stereotype! Meanwhile, I agree with The Broad -- Stephen you'd make a great tour guide in a museum.
By: tom sightings on March 31, 2014
Love the way you opened the world of this artist to me. I also smiled at the story about seeing he painting. The Museum Director was a good soul. Now, why do you think the hole in the sleeve? Because it was there?
By: Tabor on April 1, 2014
It is indeed captivating but I don't know that I would have seen that without your help. I think the museum director understood your passion for art.
By: Hilary on April 1, 2014
I think paintings (and all art) speak to people differently. I honestly don't get much from this one, but I like the way the artist handled the velvet. I really like this post because it made me think about my own favorites and wondering what you and others would think about them. I bet we'd all have differing opinions, but still be able to appreciate the talent and technique involved.
By: Lexa Cain on April 1, 2014
Ah, you took me right back to my History of Art lessons when I was at Uni. Thanks! :D
By: LL COOL JOE on April 1, 2014
As someone who doesn't know or understand anything about art, I certainly appreciate your background stories and explanations about different paintings. Yes, I agree with the comment someone else made - I'd want you by my side during any visit to an art museum!
By: Pixel Peeper on April 1, 2014
As always, I learn from your posts. You see things that us non-artists would never see or even consider. Fascinating! What a great story about getting into the museum. I love that the director could see how badly you wanted to see the painting and allowed you in. Great story, Chatterbox.
By: Cheryl P. on April 1, 2014
I love learning from you. You're an artist AND a teacher. :) S
By: Scott Park on April 1, 2014
That painting is sublime. I love Velasques too but never took a good look at that painting. In some ways, it looks modern, like a photograph. Glad you got to see it.
By: Madeleine McLaughlin on April 2, 2014
Educational, as always Stephen. Despite my lack of artistic nous, I can recognize why this painting made such an impression with you.
By: Bryan Jones on April 2, 2014
This is a great painting which complements your great story!
By: John on April 3, 2014

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