Juan de Pareja
Oil on canvas
32 x 27 1/2 in. (81.3 x 69.9 cm.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Text from "Sister Wendy's American Masterpieces":
"Nearly thirty years ago, when a British earl offered the family's Velazquez for sale, protestors marched from many parts of England and Scotland, pleading with the government to save the piece for Britain, but governments, as we know, are penny-pinching creatures, and so this portrait of a man of North African descent, painted by a Spaniard while residing in Italy, finally came to rest in New York.
"The Metropolitan is probably the greatest museum in the world, and I think - daring claim - that this is its greatest painting. Velazquez was only in Italy because the king of Spain wanted him to buy pictures there, and also to paint the Pope. In Madrid, Velazquez was a major figure: the court painter, the king's friend, and a recognized genius. He came to Rome and found himself unknown. It seems to me that, in his well-bred way, Velazquez was a little miffed at this. He was not vain, but he had a good and deserved sense of his own gifts.
"Velazquez evidently decided to paint a portrait that would show the Romans what he could do. He chose as his subject his assistant and friend, Juan de Pareja (c. 1610-70). Amazingly, this man was technically a slave; we still have the document of manumission with which Velazquez formally set him free. However, we can see from Velazquez painting that the two were undeniably equals. That steady look of self-controlled power can even make us wonder which of the two held a higher opinion of himself. It is a daring picture in that it almost eschews the use of color. This is a dark man, with wonderful coppery skin, set against an indeterminate background, where even the rich velvets of the sleeves appear dim."