Who Was Juan de Pareja, and Why Is He Important?

Juan de Pareja, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1661

Who was Juan de Pareja? He was an artist and a Black man who lived first enslaved and then free in 17th-century Seville, Spain. He was the studio assistant to Diego Velázquez and his one-time muse. An ordinary man of his time and a historical curiosity, he has faded in and out of the collective cultural memory for years. For centuries he was known by one myth, which goes something like this:

Velázquez, a favorite of King Philip IV, resided in court along with his dutiful slave de Pareja. Unknown to him, Pareja was making paintings in secret. One day the art-loving king stumbled upon Pareja’s surreptitious labor and demanded that he be freed, declaring that, “The man who had such talent cannot be a slave.”

But what Pareja’s actual life reveals, so far as can be gauged from this vantage point, upends this myth along with some of our most deeply held beliefs about art, its history, and the people who make it.

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