Juan de Pareja (c. 1606 in Antequera – 1670 in Madrid) was a Spanish painter, born into slavery in Antequera, near Málaga, Spain…. the son of an enslaved mulatto (mixed-race) woman and Spanish father. He was described as a “Morisco,” being “of mixed parentage and a strange color.” At the time morisco had two possible meanings. It referred both to descendants of Muslims who converted to Catholicism and remained in Spain after the Reconquest, and to the children of a Spaniard and a mulatto.
De Pareja was inherited by Velazquez and became an assistant in his painting after 1631. Velázquez later freed Pareja while they were in Rome during a trip to Italy in 1650. Around the same time Velázquez painted Pareja’s portrait, which is now held in New York. The document of his manumission is held in the state archive of Rome.
In 1648, as court painter to Philip IV of Spain, Diego Velázquez was sent to Rome to purchase works of art for the Alcázar in Madrid, and he brought Juan de Pareja with him. During his stay in Rome, Velázquez executed an oil portrait of Juan de Pareja, which was displayed as part of a larger exhibition of paintings at the Pantheon on 19 March 1650. According to Antonio Palomino’s biography of Velázquez, the painting “was generally 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’.”
Velázquez painted the Juan de Pareja as an exercise in preparation for his official portrait of Pope Innocent X. The Pope, a ruddy-faced man who would be depicted in the bright pink and crimson robes of his office, presented a tricky study in both color and composition. Additionally, since he would be executing a portrait from life, Velázquez would be forced to work quickly while still capturing the essence of Innocent X’s character. The Juan de Pareja reflects Velázquez’s exploration of the difficulties he would encounter in the Pope’s portrait. To compensate for a restricted palette of colors, Velázquez adopted a loose, almost impressionistic style of brushwork to bring an intense vitality to his subject—a style which would make both the Juan de Pareja and the subsequent portrait of Innocent X two of the most renowned paintings of his career.
In 1648 Velázquez was dispatched to Rome by Philip IV of Spain to buy works of art for the Alcazar palace in Madrid. In Rome he painted an official portrait of Pope Innocent X (Galeria Doria Pamphili, Rome). Before starting work on the papal portrait he made an informal painting of his own assistant Juan de Pareja, a Sevillian of Moorish descent. This picture was exhibited in Rome on March 19, 1650. In his life of Velázquez (1724), Palomino writes that the painting “was generally 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.’” The direct approach in this painting contrasts with the more formal structure of Velázquez’s state portraits.