The portrait of Juan de Pareja by Diego de Velázquez that hangs in a gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan is surrounded by other estimable works, even a few of genius. But this work compels the viewer to look. It is a portrait of personal disappointment and anguish, and its great beauty deepens that anguish profoundly. I felt this the moment I first saw the painting years ago, and go back to visit it every time I’m in New York. I’ve always sympathized with Juan de Pareja and worried why he was suffering so deeply in such seeming silence.
In Rome in 1650, the Spaniard Velázquez was on a royal mission to obtain paintings, sculptures, and other Italian artwork to decorate new rooms in the Alcázar. He spent two and a half years on this assignment, in search of the best the Italians could offer. Among his retinue was a man named Juan de Pareja, who was the mixed-race son of a female slave and, until 1654, a slave to Velázquez himself. Juan had been born in Antequera, Spain, around 1610. As a young man he had been consigned to work in Velázquez’s studio, most probably as some sort of shop assistant. Velázquez’s biographer Antonio Palomino writes that Velázaquez would not allow Juan himself to paint because, he believed, art of the sort that Velázquez did was too great for a slave to undertake. He believed that such art should be reserved for free men. Juan apparently painted anyway, in secret, without the master’s knowledge.
By the time they got to Rome, Juan was one of the great painter’s principal assistants, and there Velázquez undertook to paint the portrait of him. In Sister Wendy's American Masterpieces, the art critic Wendy Beckett writes that "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’s 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."
I believe that Velázquez’s painting of Juan conveys great personal dignity and barely suppressed emotional pain, and I assume from the deep passion that exists in Velázquez’s depiction that, despite his treatment of his slave, he understood him. Somehow Velázquez saw into Juan’s anger. It’s clear in the painting itself.
And this is a painting about anger. Sister Wendy sees “self-controlled power” in Juan’s look, but I think she’s wrong. Juan de Pareja was a slave, and the circumstances of his servitude are clear in his face. He’s looking at us and, of course, at his master, with a gaze of quite genuine sadness, of the knowledge of having been betrayed by an accident of birth and victimized for it all his life. . . perhaps especially by his master. There is more than a hint of solemn rage in his look, an awareness of the irony that this great painter has taken the time to display the depth of his slave’s pain, yet has done nothing – at least to this moment – to relieve the basis of that pain. To me, Juan looks like he would prefer taking Velázquez by the lapels of his coat and shaking him violently for all that’s been done to him. But of course he cannot do that. So instead he looks on with dignity, intensity, and silent disdain.
From a distance, the painting is so fine and so emotionally detailed that it barely looks like a painting. Close up, of course you see paint and brush strokes. You see the quick work of a consummate maestro, the turns of wrist and finger of a man who suffers not one doubt as he daubs a new line of gray in Juan’s sleeve. Velázquez pays as much attention to an extension of a lace collar as he does to the sadness so obvious in the face of his subject, because he realizes that the way that lace is painted is a reflection of the nature of that sadness. A cape painted by such an artist matters, in that it gives hints about the feelings of the man who wears it. Juan’s cape is simple and black (he’s a servant, after all), hanging down his back from beneath the lace collar. The careful rendering of light, that brings the black to a subtle gray, offers the possibility that Juan’s distinct unhappiness may also be an expression of soulful feeling, albeit tempered by the grim understanding of his personal station in life.
Despite their master-slave legal arrangement, we can congratulate Velázquez for what he did. Antonio Palomino said that the portrait of Juan de Pareja "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'."
It is truth. I cannot imagine that Velázquez himself did not understand the depth of the story he was telling. The painting is too good, the anguish in Juan’s face too profoundly expressed for it to be anything but an accurate appraisal of the man’s rage. The irony is that it was Velázqez’s ownership of Juan’s fate that surely was the singular, daily cause of that rage.
Conveying truth is a struggle for artists, as it should be. It should also be the goal for artists of whatever medium, and there are some who have achieved it. For example, Mozart does so in Don Giovanni, especially in the moment when the commendatore’s statue appears at Don Giovanni’s door in the last act to punish the don for all his sins. The music that accompanies this appearance is the most frightening I’ve ever heard. It makes my heart stop, and by the time those few chords end, I worry that I will be lost. That the music for this character’s appearance is the same as that which begins the opera’s overture gives the latter, in retrospect, the force of dark fate and fate’s hellish results. . . from the very beginning.
Another such moment comes in the last paragraph of the story “The Dead” by James Joyce, my favorite paragraph in all of fiction. A kind young man who loves his extensive family, Gabriel Conroy is truly smitten with his wife Gretta as well, but is distanced from her by something he cannot determine. Only on Christmas night, after a party, does Gretta tell Gabriel about the boy she loved – and who loved her – when she was a girl. She knows that this boy, Michael Furey, died for love of her after having stood in the rain one night to speak with her. She has regretted not returning that affection ever since, because Michael Furey, she knows, held the very nature of love in his heart, and she was the object of it. She falls asleep weeping, and Gabriel looks out the hotel window at the snow.
It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
This writing is imbued with the depth of Gretta’s love, the fatal loss of it, and her husband’s deep and kind understanding of that loss.
Legend has it that the king of Spain was to visit Diego de Velázquez’s studio one day, and that Juan de Pareja secured a place there where the king would inevitably come across one of Juan’s own paintings. The king and his procession arrived, all dominion, pomp, and authority. When he approached Juan’s piece, the artist prostrated himself before His Majesty and explained that he was a slave, yet a member of Velázquez’s studio, and had taught himself to paint. He asked for help, for recognition as an artist. The king replied that "any man who has this skill cannot be a slave," at which point Velázquez had little option but to grant Juan his freedom.
This story may be true, and Juan did have talent. His painting “The Calling of Saint Matthew” at The Prado in Madrid shows his technical mastery. But – at least in this painting – he shied from the kind of emotional profundity that Velázquez himself had found in him. Juan puts himself in the painting, to the far left, looking out at us. The character is of mild interest, and appears to be of indifferent importance to Juan himself. Sadly, it took the cynical slave-owner Velázquez to convey the truth of Juan de Pareja’s situation to us. What an irony that Velázquez understood his slave’s heart so well, showed it to us so clearly, yet thumbed his nose at the possibility that such a man could have artistic talent himself! It was because of that arrogance, I believe, that Juan de Pareja gazes at the artist Velázquez with so much of a sense of angry dismissal.
Sister Wendy continues: "Nearly thirty years ago, when a British earl offered the family's Velázquez (i.e. the portrait of Juan de Pareja) 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.”
Juan de Pareja is the victim of a disaster imposed upon him literally by the forces of history and the manipulative insistence by some people upon the ruination of other people’s destinies. Of all the paintings I’ve ever seen, this one takes my heart the most.