The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) is exhibiting some of the works of the painter Juan de Pareja in what they’re calling the first major retrospective to examine the Afro Hispanic artist’s life and work.

Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter,” on view from April 3 through July 16, 2023, is a multi-layered presentation destined to attract art aficionados and African history buffs. The show, co-curated by Dr. Vanessa K. Valdés, associate provost for community engagement at The City College of New York and professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and David Pullins, an associate curator in the Met, displays archival books and manuscripts, juxtaposed against paintings that illustrate a 17th-century southern European world. The exhibition then places those items alongside photos of a 20th-century man caught in a revelry as he tries to retrace the steps of Africans in southern Spain. 

Born in southern Andalusia to an African mother and Spanish father, Pareja was a 17th-century artist who first gained renown while working as an assistant to naturalistic portrait artist Diego Velázquez. Pareja was enslaved as an artist assistant to Velázquez and accompanied him while the Spanish painter was collecting art in Italy. 

When they were in Rome, Velázquez needed to practice his portraiture technique because he was scheduled to do a painting depicting the Catholic pope. He had Pareja sit for him and the resulting piece, “Portrait of Juan de Pareja” (1650), was heralded by Velázquez’s contemporaries and has been on view at the Met since 1971. 

It’s an arresting piece, a work of art widely celebrated when purchased by the Met. Pareja seems to stare out at you, and measure you, as you, the viewer, try to decipher who this boldly confident man is. The name of the piece just tells you that it’s a portrait, but with this Met exhibit, you get to find out a little more about Pareja and why—and how—if he was enslaved at the time of this picture, he was able to hold his head so high.  

Pareja’s stance was so prominent that it caught the eye of Arturo Schomburg in the early 1900s. “Arturo Schomburg’s politically attuned recovery efforts around Pareja in the 1920s in New York became increasingly…a sort of steppingstone between 17th-century Spain and 21st-century New York,” Pullins said. 

“Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter” combines the story of Pareja with Schomburg’s famous quest to prove that African people have had an impact on history. One portion of the exhibit depicts how, after Schomburg sold his 10,000-item collection of African art and archives to the Carnegie Corporation for the creation of what would become the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Collection, “On June 12, 1926, Arturo Schomburg set sail from New York Harbor for Europe …writing, ‘I depart now on a mission of love to recapture my lost heritage.’”

Valdés said that, “With his earnings, that $10,000––today valued at almost $170,000––he traveled to Europe with the express goal of visiting archives throughout the continent. [He wanted] to recover what he called vindicating evidences that proved that people of African descent had always contributed to the societies in which they have lived.”

The first room of the exhibition includes personal photos Schomburg took during this trip. The photos include Schomburg’s handwritten notes about former streets, homes, and neighborhoods where Black people once lived in Córdoba and Seville, Spain. The room also has some of the important books he collected—works created by Juan Latino in 1573, Junilius Africanus from the 6th century BCE, and Leo Africanus in 1526––although most of these books were collected before his trip to Spain. 

The other three sections of the exhibition prove that Schomburg was right: Pareja and other artists had created works in the 17th century that showed how Black people were an integral part of society during the European Middle Ages. Some had been enslaved; others had played important intellectual and spiritual roles in Europe’s formation. 

“Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter” ends by centering Pareja’s work. After presenting Velázquez’s portrait of Pareja and the actual manuscript that released him from slavery, the exhibition finishes with a view of Pareja’s paintings and shows how these works distinguished him as an artist. His “The Calling of Saint Matthew” (1661), “The Flight into Egypt” (1658), “Portrait of José Ratés” (1660) and “The Baptism of Christ” (1667) close the show. “The Calling of Saint Matthew” was one piece that Schomburg had pleaded with the curators at Madrid’s Prado Museum to be able to see.  

“When Arturo Schomburg goes to Spain in 1926, when he arrives in Madrid he specifically goes to the Prado and this painting was not on display,” Valdés said. “He speaks with the director there to try to get access to it because he writes that he traveled thousands of miles to be able to see this painting. ‘I had come to the Prado to see one painting, “The Calling of Matthew.” 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. [. . .] I sat in reverent silence before this large [canvas].’

“So, we have benches in this space,” Valdés said, for Met visitors who come to see this and Pareja’s other works. “We hope that our visitors will also do the same when they come upon this work.”

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