While Juan de Pareja isn’t one of the most famous Velazquez paintings (I’d vote Surrender at Breda for that category), it is one of the most poignant. And it’s one of the art paintings I pay homage to when I’m in New York City — I need to confirm every visit that it still mesmerizes me. Velazquez delivered again.
At the time Velazquez (1599-1660) made this painting in 1650, he had been court painter to Philip IV of Spain for over three decades. This was the Golden Age of Spanish painting, and Velazquez was the foremost Spanish painter of this outstanding era in art history.
Like other famous painters of the 17th century, Velazquez travelled to Rome, the cultural center of Europe, to study classical works of art and to observe what contemporary painters were creating. He was dispatched by the King on a buying trip, and was also granted permission to paint a portrait of Pope Innocent X.
But it seems Velazquez arrived before the reputation of Velazquez paintings did – the Pope left him waiting. In the interim, Velazquez painted Juan de Pareja (ca. 1610-1670), his assistant and servant from Seville. Juan is shown half-length, turned at a three-quarter view but gazing intently at the viewer. His lace collar is so thin and feathery it looks as if it just freshly landed; the folds and creases in his jacket are dense and well-worn. But it’s the hole in the sleeve that lures me back – despite the elegance of the pose and painting, that simple tear belies his grandeur, telling us unequivocally that this is a lower class man, Velazquez portrait and all.
In his book, Life of Velazquez, Antonio Palomino (1655-1726) described public reaction to this Velazquez painting upon its exhibition at the Pantheon in 1650. Juan Pareja, he reports, “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.'” Perhaps that is what prompted Pope Innocent X to proceed with his portrait from Velazquez, shown below.
I think Juan got the better deal, hole and all.