Juan de Pareja
Juan de Pareja was born in 1610 to Moorish slaves. De Pareja was bestowed to famed Spaniard painter Diego Velázquez in a will. De Pareja acted as Velázquez's assistant in his studio, grinding pigments and stretching canvases. Velázquez noticed Juan’s talent for painting and took him under his wing perfecting his techniques and skill.
While de Pareja was Velázquez’s slave, he was treated with the utmost respect. He traveled with Velázquez Velázquez to Italy to help acquire Venetian paintings for the King of Spain. Unfortunately there are many negative myths surrounding Velázquez and de Pareja’s relationship. Some have said that Velázquez refused to teach de Pareja painting and learned from watching him; de Pareja was able to showcase his art to the King of Spain and convinced him to free him. But Velázquez loved de Pareja, enough to manumit him in 1654 and allow him to make a living through his art.
Velázquez even painted a portrait of de Pareja, and hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I always loved this painting because it showed de Pareja with dignity and respect. Other Black art subjects of the time were treated as exotic others, and not with the same respect and care as other art subjects were. Painted in Rome, it was displayed publicly beneath the portico of the Pantheon in March 1650. Velázquez clearly intended to impress his Italian colleagues with his unique artistry. Indeed we are told that the picture “gained such universal applause that in the opinion of all the painters of the different nations everything else seemed like painting but this alone like truth”
According to legend, on an occasion when Velázquez’s patron, the king of Spain, was due to visit, Pareja placed one of his own paintings where it would be seen by him. 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. The king voiced the opinion that “any man who has this skill cannot be a slave,” at which point Velázquez had little option but to grant Pareja his freedom.
Another version of events has Pareja being given the gift of his freedom in return for his friendship and support following the death of Velázquez’s wife. In any event, Juan de Pareja became a painter in his own right and was freed by Velázquez in 1654. He stayed on in Velázquez’s studio, painting openly and quickly becoming an artist of considerable talent.
In 1966 Elizabeth Borton de Treviño wrote I, Juan de Pareja. This as a historical fiction
novel about de Pareja won the Newbery Medal for excellence in American children’s literature in 1966.