Like many museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently been making efforts to decolonize its collection, including the repatriation of artworks from its galleries. Since 2021, the Met has returned three bronzes to Nigeria, 15 artworks to India, and numerous antiquities to Nepal, Italy, and Egypt. But art history also can be decolonized in ways that have less to do with the restitution of goods than with reevaluating the kinds of histories that are told and the range of artists who are represented. The museum’s show “Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic Painter,” curated by the Met’s David Pullins and Vanessa K. Valdés, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the City College of New York, seeks to do just that.
Prior to this exhibition, Pareja (1608–1670) may have been known to many not as an artist, but as the subject of a stunning painting by Diego Velázquez, which was acquired by the Met in 1971. Velázquez was not only Pareja’s portraitist but also his artistic master and erstwhile enslaver. This bond is mentioned in early biographies, which also inform us of how the old master brought Pareja with him to Rome in 1650 when he was sent to purchase artworks on behalf of the Spanish king. The Met’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja was executed during this journey and, if we are to believe his biographer, Velázquez had Pareja carry his own likeness through the streets so spectators could marvel at his master’s artistic skills.
At the end of their Italian tour, Velázquez granted Pareja his freedom. In fact, one of the most moving objects in the exhibition is neither a painting nor a sculpture but the manumission document, first discovered quite by accident in a Roman archive in 1983 by Jennifer Montagu. The circumstances of Pareja’s original enslavement remain unknown, but one thing we learn from an essay by Luis Méndez Rodríguez in the exhibition catalogue is just how common such uneven relationships were in the 17th century: Caravaggio and Murillo are implicated in such exploitative practices, as are numerous lesser-known painters, sculptors, tile makers, glaziers, and other artisans who similarly kept enslaved people in their workshops and households.
The exhibition takes care to contextualize Pareja’s art. The first of four sections is devoted to a précis of the scholarly activities of the Black Puerto Rican intellectual and polymath Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874–1938) whose essays “The Negro Digs Up His Past” (1925) and “In Search of Juan de Pareja” (1927) were among the first to explore the painter’s background. The second locates Pareja in the multiracial communities of enslaved and freed Africans in early modern Seville. At one end, the section is haunted by three lavish silver vessels from the Met’s collection that were produced by enslaved artisans; at the other end are three near-identical paintings by Velázquez of an African kitchen maid, indicating an interest in such images. With this generous introduction in place, Velázquez’s portrait of Pareja and a portrait attributed to Pareja appear in the third section alongside his “donation of freedom,” while the final section assembles a grouping of large-scale religious paintings by Pareja and his Spanish contemporaries.
The artist’s 18th-century biographer Antonio Palomino described how Pareja fashioned himself “a new self and another second nature” after he was freed, and the curators take care to underline that his liberation from Velázquez had both personal and stylistic consequences. Three of Pareja’s large-scale religious works—The Flight into Egypt (1658), The Calling of Saint Matthew (1661),and The Baptism of Christ (1667)—as well as a portrait of the architect José Ratés Dalmau (ca. 1660s), make evident just how far he went beyond his master’s house. Gone is the lugubrious chiaroscuro of Velázquez’s late style, replaced now with clear lighting and a jubilant chromatic palette inspired by artists such Claudio Coello, whose shimmering Saint Catherine of Alexandria Dominating the Emperor Maxentius (ca. 1664) hangs on the opposite wall. At the left edge of The Calling of Saint Matthew, Pareja inserts an image himself holding a cartellino that bears his name and the date. The elegant subject looks out from the composition, waiting for the spectator of the future to come and acknowledge him.
If his relationship with Velázquez marks one end of a historical timeline in Pareja’s life, the other end connects him to Schomburg, the political activist, engaged essayist, radical bibliophile, Black Freemason, expert archivist, institution builder, and world traveler whose dedicated research helped recover Pareja’s identity as an Afro-Hispanic painter. Told as a child by a teacher that the “Negro had no history,” Schomburg devoted his life to proving otherwise. In the process he amassed two great collections of books, documents, and other artifacts attesting to the presence of Black excellence throughout history. The show includes personal photographs Schomburg took during a journey throughout Europe, including Spain, where he went in search of Pareja’s Calling of Saint Matthew. He wrote of his emotional encounter with the painting in the back rooms of the Prado Museum: “I had journeyed thousands of miles to look upon the work of this colored slave who had succeeded by courageous persistence in the face of every discouragement.” While Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja holds pride of place at the physical center of this exhibition, it is ultimately Schomburg’s portrait of Pareja that shines as the true heart of the story told here.