Between 1649 and 1651, Velázquez travelled to Italy for the second and last time in his life. The main purpose of the trip was to buy paintings and sculptures for King Philip IV of Spain, and while he was in Rome, the painter also received the prestigious commission to portray Pope Innocent X (the canvas is now in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome). During his two years in Italy Velázquez produced some outstanding portraits of patrons and princes of the Church, including those of Cardinal Camillo Astalli (Hispanic Society, New York), Camillo Massimo (Kingston Lacy, Dorset) and the so-called Pope’s Barber (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid). The portrait of Juan de Pareja is one of the most important and striking works documented during Velázquez’s second Italian trip.
Antonio Palomino, one of Velázquez’s biographers, recorded that while in Rome Velázquez "made the portrait of Juan de Pareja, his slave and fine painter, which was so like him and so lively that, when he sent it by means of Pareja himself to some friends for their criticism, they just stood looking at the painted portrait and at the original in awe and wonder, not knowing to whom they should speak or who would answer them. About this portrait (which was half-length and done from life) Andreas Schmidt, a Flemish painter in the Court who was in Rome at the time, used to tell that since for the feast of Saint Joseph it was the custom to decorate the cloister of the Pantheon (where Raphael of Urbino is buried) with famous pictures, both ancient and modern, this portrait was hung there, and it received such universal acclaim that in the opinion of all the painters of different nations everything else looked like painting, this alone like reality" (see Palomino 1724).
Every year, on March 19, the feast of Saint Joseph, the Congregazione dei Virtuosi would organize an exhibition under the portico of the Pantheon in Rome. The Virtuosi were a congregation of artists, established in 1543, that had their headquarters at the Pantheon. Velázquez was a member since at least the beginning of 1650. On February 13 of that year he appeared as one of the official organizers (festaroli) of the yearly feast in honor of Saint Joseph, together with Gregorio del Prete, Giovan Battista Magni, and Jan Miel. As recorded by Palomino, the portrait of Juan de Pareja was Velázquez’s painting on display in 1650 at the Pantheon and probably his first publicly exhibited work in that city.
Juan de Pareja was Velázquez’s slave and assistant. He was of Moorish descent and was born in Antequera, near Malaga. A few months after his portrait was exhibited, on November 23, 1650, the painter signed the official act of liberation of Juan, making him a free man (Montagu 1983). In the document Pareja agreed to stay with his master for a further four years, but in fact he continued to live with him until Velázquez’s death, and subsequently was in the house of his son-in-law, the painter Juan Bautista Mazo. The close relationship between Velázquez and Pareja is apparent in the canvas, painted with an extremely informal and lifelike quality.
The portrait was acquired in 1776 by Sir William Hamilton from Vincenzo Ruffo, 3rd duca di Baranello, in Naples. It had been in the Ruffo family since at least 1734 when it appears in the inventory of Cardinal Tommaso Ruffo’s collection in Rome. From Hamilton it then passed to the Earls of Radnor, from about 1811 to 1970, when it was acquired by the MMA.
A smaller copy, now at the Hispanic Society, was previously with the Earls of Carlisle at Castle Howard and has sometimes been thought to be Velázquez’s original. However, it is clearly a copy of the Metropolitan’s picture, possibly by Pareja himself. Three other copies of the portrait are known. The first one was formerly in the collection of Captain J.B. Blackett in Arbigland, Dumfries, Scotland, and was sold at Christie’s, London, May 29, 1992, no. 321. A nineteenth-century copy was in the Peruvian Embassy in Washington, and is last documented in the residence of the ambassador, Fernando Berckemeyer, in San Francisco in 1973. A third and slightly larger version with a few differences has been in the Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Chéret, Nice, since 1903.