In 1758, the Henry Howard, the fourth Earl of Carlisle died. His son, Frederick, inherited his title and became the fifth Earl of Carlisle. He was ten years old at the time. He also inherited Castle Howard, a magnificent country estate built by his grandfather some fifteen miles Northwest of York, England (in this century, Castle Howard was the backdrop for the PBS TV series Brideshead Revisited). It was there he grew up. In the process, Frederick Howard became something of a playboy, and unlike his considerable list of ancestors, was more interested in enjoying the good life, seeing Europe, and collecting art than in any kind of public service. But he shared with his father and grandfather a love of art and a mania for collecting it. With a male "friend" he toured Italy and brought home to the family estate a considerable collection of works by such Italian masters as Titian, Veronese, Raphael, Canaletto, Tintoretto, and a rather obscure portrait by the Spanish court painter, Diego Velázquez (which had somehow got mixed in with the otherwise all Italian works of the Orleans Collection which Howard and two other English gentlemen had bought and divided amongst themselves).
The paintings were to remain at Castle Howard for the next 150 years. In 1940, the castle suffered a devastating fire. Much of the Howard family art collection as well as some 20 rooms (out of close to 100) of the family manor house were destroyed. Fortunately, the Velázquez escaped harm. However, the war was on, and afterwards, rebuilding castles was not very high on anyone's list of priorities. But over the next 25 years, Castle Howard was gradually restored. And although the family was relatively wealthy, it was a horrendously expensive undertaking. In 1972, the project needed a big dose of money to restore the dome and re-roof a large part of the house, so the decision was made to sell the Velázquez. When word leaked out, there were demonstrations and a storm of protest that such an important work of art would likely leave the country. Despite this, the painting was sold, the dome was rebuilt. And as a consequence, Velázquez's portrait of his mulatto slave, Juan de Pareja, came to rest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Velázquez painted the portrait in 1650 during a trip to Italy (which may explain how the painting ended up there). Although Velázquez was a household name as an artist in Spain, he was dismayed to discover that his fame did not extend much beyond his country's borders. Though Juan de Pareja was technically a slave, the light-skinned North African was actually much more a friend and assistant (Velázquez eventually granted him his freedom). As something of a public relations ploy, Velázquez painted his assistant's portrait with the understanding that Pareja would carry the painting to the studio of every painter in Rome, knocking on the door, then holding it up in front of his face when the door opened, allowing everyone to see and admire the technical virtuosity and fine aesthetic qualities the portrait possessed, before being impressed by the amazing likeness Velázquez had captured. Though a bit unorthodox, the plan worked. Word travelled quickly all over Rome and eventually Italy: "All other paintings are art. But this, this is truth."
It's an apt description of the painting. The work is relatively monochromatic except for the vibrant, rich, warm tones Velázquez uses to capture the striking African features of his friend and colleague. The dark cloak and velvet sleeve are subdued. The background varies in value but is uniformly indistinct and neutral in tone. Only the fashionable, white lace collar, reflecting the lively flesh tones of the dramatically lit face and features capture our attention, riveting it to the characteristic truth and honesty that have always been a hallmark of the artist's work. A noted critic has described the painting as the best the Metropolitan Museum of Art has to offer, while at the same time calling the Met the best museum in the world. Though this, of course, doesn't mean Velázquez's Juan de Pareja is the best painting in the world, in that light, it has certainly travelled an interesting road to whatever distinction we may choose to award it