Have you ever wondered how the stories that we tell ourselves are created? What affects the way they shape in our mind? And how does this affect our experience of the world? I would like to offer you an exercise in looking today. Something like the Rorschach test, only the material will be less abstract. Please look at the image below and catch the first association that comes to your mind regarding the man depicted on it. Who is he? What is his position in the society? What education did he receive?
I suspect that most of you in your answers gave such terms as aristocrat, courtier, maybe diplomat or artist. Did anyone of you come to think of calling him a slave?
Juan de Pareja was born in 1606 in Antequera in the province of Malaga as a son of Spaniard and a slave named Zulema. He belonged to the Velázquez family, and from 1631 he was employed as an assistant in the painter’s studio. Slavery in Spain was a common phenomenon, Seville – in which Velázquez began his career – was one of the main centers of slave trade on the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas. Surprisingly, with such a significant presence of black slaves, their representation in Spanish painting was negligible. It was Velázquez who changed it, choosing black characters for the heroes of his genre scenes.
Velázquez made a conscious choice by painting the portrait of Juan de Pareja. Portrait as a genre is a kind of a showcase of a sitter, its aim is both to show the individuality of him and to give the best version of his appearance. One can call it a motto with which a sitter would like to describe himself. It is supposed to catch the viewer from the first sight. In a portrait from 1650, Pareja certainly does not look like a slave. He is a sophisticated courtier, an aristocrat with a daring gaze. Let’s look what made in our eyes that Juan de Pareja, the enslaved associate of Velázquez, became don Juan.
While learning about reality the human brain is looking for the shortest path for data processing. It eagerly assigns new elements to already known labels. And so a specific skin color, body position or outfit can trigger specific sequences of meanings in the brain. Velázquez used a pose associated with gentiluomo, known among others from portraits of Titian, to disarm (Spanish) image of black people. Juan de Pareja was shown as the main and only hero of the painting. He boldly looks into our eyes, his masculine beauty is emphasized by the luxuriant hair and whiteness of the lace collar contrasting with the chocolate shade of his complexion. He is the incarnation of a gentleman.
The portrait of Juan de Pareja was created in Rome, far away from Spain. It is difficult to say clearly what were the motivations of the artist – an expression of rebellion against a rigid customs in Spain, the promotion of his skills or perhaps the desire to impress the Roman elite of artists and humanists. Or probably a bit of everything. Juan de Pareja, shortly after the painting was made, was liberated by Velázquez and he continued to improve his skills in the craft of painting. He became an independent artist after the death of the master. The way we see him today, is very much indebted to this suggestive portrait.
Without knowing these facts would you be able to reckon the truth about the figure depicted in the portrait? Our exercise from the beginning gave a rather negative answer. When learning about new images, before we make a decisive judgment, it is worth establishing the facts and reaching their true story. Velázquez appealed to viewers’ visual habits to mislead them in their assessment of the position of the sitter. And he succeeded in his deception.