Juan de Pareja (c. 1606-1670) was born into slavery in Antequera, near Malaga, Spain. He was the son of an enslaved African woman and a white Spanish father. He was typically described as a “morisco,” meaning of mixed parentage and unusual color. While this may refer to his mixed race heritage, it may also refer to descendants of Muslims who converted to Catholicism and remained in Spain after the Reconquest. Little is known about his life until he entered the household and workshop of Diego Velázquez around 1630. It is interesting to note that before he arrived in Madrid to work for Velázquez, Pareja did pass his examination to become a painter in Seville. During this time, artists were not legally allowed to engage in the artistic profession. When he arrived in Madrid, he expressed to the procurator of Seville that he wished to contibue to study painting with his brother, Jusepe. After entering Velázquez home, Pareja became an assiatant in Velázquez’s workshop. He was responsible for mixing colors, preparing palettes, and washing brushes. It was in his master’s workshop that Pareja continued to learned about art and painting. He may have copied Velázquez’s works and learned the Spanish baroque style by mimicking his master’s style. After working within his household for two decades, Velázquez freed Pareja in 1650 during a trip to Rome. It was around this time that Velázquez created a portrait of his former slave, seen above.
After Velázquez’s death in 1660, Pareja went on to become an assistant to the painter, Juan del Mazo. While working as an assistant to Velázquez and del Mazo, Pareja executed a number of paintings. Only ten known works exist. In his most well-known, “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” he included a self-portrait on the far left side of the panel.
Little is known about Pareja’s life. His death was recorded in 1670. Information about artists of African descent is rare during the Early Modern period, but the little information available shows the valuable role Pareja and artists like him played in the artist’s studio.
Elizabeth McGrath and Jean Michel Massing, “The Slave in European Art: from Renaissance Trophy to Abolishionist Emblem.” London: The Warburg Institute, 2012.
Robert Fikes Jr. “Juan de Pareja and Sebastian Gomez: Masters of Spanish Baroque Painting” in The Crisis, Vol. 87, No. 2 (February, 1980): 50-54.