Day 88 – Juan de Pareja

Diego Velázquez, Juan de Pareja, 1650, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I used this portrait as an illustration last week when I talked about Juan de Pareja’s own painting of The Flight into Egypt (Picture Of The Day 85), but I wanted to look at in its own right, because it is rather wonderful – and also because it gives a good opportunity to talk about both artist and sitter.

It was painted in 1650 in Rome, when Velázquez was visiting Italy for the second time. He was there at the behest of King Philip IV of Spain, and he had been sent to acquire paintings and sculptures for the Alcázar in Madrid. He was accompanied by Juan de Pareja, who had been in his service since the early 1630s. They sailed from Málaga to Genoa, and then travelled through Milan to Venice. There he bought paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese – all of which seem to have influenced Pareja’s own work, although they were, in any case, already in plentiful supply back in Spain. From there they headed to the Este Court in Modena, and thence to Rome. While there he was commissioned to paint Giovanni Battista Pamphili, better known as Pope Innocent X. ‘In order to get his hand in’ (as Jennifer Montagu phrased it in an article in the Burlington Magazine of November 1983) he practiced by painting ‘a head’ of his assistant. This was the term used by Antonio Palomino, who wrote one of the first biographies of Velázquez, published in 1724. From our point of view this masterful painting is far more than just a head – it is a fully finished portrait – but that was the term they used. Indeed, Palomino went on to say that it was included in an exhibition held in the portico of the Pantheon on 19 March 1650, and that, “it 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 comment speaks for itself in many ways, although it does include much ‘art’. It is a herald of Velázquez’ late style, which contemporary Spaniards called the maniera abreviada , the ‘abbreviated style’. When you look closely, there is the most remarkable freedom in the handling of the paint, however detailed it may appear from a distance.

All of the details are there, we know how every item of clothing fits, where and how it is attached – and yet it is nothing but a mass of paint. Velázquez’ style had been developing a greater freedom ever since his earliest days of minutely detailed precision (POTD 20), but added to that we might be seeing a way of making a virtue out of necessity. You don’t always get long with a Pope, and Velázquez needed to be sure that he would be able to paint him quickly, and from life, rather than relying on a pre-existing model (a very common practice for ‘state’ portraits) – hence the need to practice on Pareja. However, the challenges were very different, but even here he might have been rehearsing. 

Apparently the Pope had quite a high, reddish, complexion – but was also to be shown wearing his scarlet biretta and mozzetta – the hat and cape – while seated on a red throne against a red curtain.  Although completely different in appearance, Pareja was also portrayed with a limited palette, but this time of mid- to dark-browns. It is a far subtler portrait, as a result, and I think a far more beautiful one, however brilliant Innocent X may appear – although of course I’m more than happy for you to disagree!

The gentle highlights on the forehead, nose and cheeks give us a real sense of form, while a softness around the mouth and eyes – and especially the double catch-lights that make the eyes seem so moist – create a sense of inner sadness, which may be projection on my part. Pareja may have been very happy at this point. 

He was born in Antequera, not so far from Málaga, in 1606, just three years before the Moors were expelled. His mother, Zulema, was mixed race, and in part of African descent, while his father (after whom Juan was named) was a white Spaniard. Pareja came to Madrid in the early 1630s, probably entering Velázquez’ service soon after the latter returned from his first visit to Italy in January 1631.

In Velázquez’ service he must have learnt how to paint, although Palomino says that the master wouldn’t allow him to do so because of his status, adding that in the Classical world only free men were allowed access to such sophisticated practices. However, he goes on to say that Pareja did paint in secret, and arranged for one of his own paintings to be in the master’s studio one day when King Philip IV visited. The King was so impressed that his insisted he should be freed, and allowed to practice in his own right. Sadly, this charming story is manifestly not true. A document in the archives in Rome, dated 23 November 1650 – published by Jennifer Montague in the article cited above – is a notarial act granting Pareja his freedom, ‘In view of the good and faithful service the slave has given him and considering that nothing could be more pleasing to the slave than the gift of liberty’ – provided that he stayed in Velázquez’ service for a further four years. This was quite a common clause, apparently, as was the ‘ownership’ of slaves by artists (and, I assume, other members of Spanish society).  Francesco Pacheco, Murillo and Alonso Cano all had enslaved assistants, for example.

Pareja’s earliest dated painting is The Rest on the Flight to Egypt which we saw on Thursday (POTD 85), and that was not painted until 1658 – four years after his ‘freedom’. It could be that other, earlier paintings have been lost – only ten survive, as far as we know – or it could be that he really didn’t start painting on his own until he was free. But however much he might have relished his liberty, he did not go far, as I said last week. He continued to work as Velázquez’ assistant until the master died in 1660. He then became the assistant to Juan Bautista del Mazo, Velázquez’ son-in-law, and remained part of that household until his own death in 1670, even though Mazo himself had died three years earlier. I hope to look at another of his paintings tomorrow.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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