An intriguing painting: an intriguing story

The Calling of Saint Matthew

This is ‘The Calling of Saint Matthew’ painted in 1661 by Juan de Pareja. Who he?

One answer is that he’s the man on the far left, looking directly at us, but that still doesn’t get us very far. Another answer is the magnificent painting below:

Juan de Pareja

This is a portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velázquez. But still we need to go further because I’ve been holding back the crucial information that Juan de Pareja was Velázquez’s slave.

That Velázquez had a slave is perhaps not so surprising, that he painted him is perhaps more so, and that he should have painted him looking so dignified and proud is probably most surprising of all. What is even more striking is that Juan de Pareja later became a fine artist in his own right despite the fact that slaves were not legally allowed to practise the fine arts in Spain at that time.

These few other facts we have about Juan de Pareja made a big impression on the wonderful children’s author Elizabeth Borton de Treviño who won the Newbery Medal with I, Juan de Pareja in 1966. It is an excellent novel that I will write about in more detail on another occasion. For the time being, however, I just want to quote one section from the book in which Juan de Pareja, newly arrived in Velázquez’s studio, first learns what it is to be an artist. It is, I think, a fascinating insight into the work of Velázquez and, by extension, of Elizabeth Borton de Treviño herself:

And often [Velázquez] simply sat staring … now at a piece of draped velvet, now at a copper bowl, now at me.

When I felt a little more confidence in his presence and did not fear disturbing him in one of his reveries, I asked him why he did this.

“I am working, Juanico,” was his answer. “Working by looking.”

I did not understand and so I held my tongue, thinking that this was what he meant me to do with this cryptic answer. But a week or more later, he spoke to me as if I had put my question but a moment before, answering, “When I sit and look at something I am feeling its shape, so that I shall have it in my fingers when I start to draw the outline. I am analyzing the colors too. For example, do you see that piece of brocade on the chair? What color is it?”

“Blue,” I answered promptly.

“No, Juanico. There is a faint underlay of blue, but there is violet in that blue, the faintest touch of rose, and the highlights are red and bright green. Look again.”

It was magical, for suddenly I could see them, the other colors, just as he said.

“The eye is complicated. It mixes colors for you,” explained Master. “The painter must unmix them and lay them on again shade by shade, and then the eye of the beholder takes over and mixes them again.”

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