Editor’s Note: Untold Art History investigates lesser-known stories in art, spotlighting pioneering artists who were overlooked during their lifetimes, as well as uncovering new insights into influential artworks that radically shift our understanding of them.

CNN  — 

In 1650, the city of Rome was abuzz. The Spanish artist Diego Velázquez had just exhibited a portrait in the Pantheon’s domed interior. His subject: Juan de Pareja, an Andalusian man who was enslaved and serving as Velázquez’s studio assistant. Not only was a formal portrait of a man of African heritage exceedingly rare in Western art at the time, but the painting’s likeness was so stunning that an early biographer of Velázquez wrote the artist sent Pareja around Rome, painting in hand, to show it off to his acquaintances.

It was said they could not tell who appeared more real.

Pareja became an overnight celebrity. Soon after, he was freed from slavery and became an accomplished artist in his own right in Madrid. But he remains an elusive figure within art history, with details of his life prone to myth, his paintings often misattributed and no more than two of his works ever exhibited in the same place.

Juan de Pareja became "instantly famous" in this portrait by Diego Velázquez, while he was still enslaved.

Now, though, Pareja is receiving his largest show to date at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic Painter” groups five of his paintings along with those from his contemporaries, and Velázquez, to show a fuller picture of his life. The artworks include Pareja’s most famous painting, “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” a 1661 religious scene in which he inserted a self-portrait making direct eye contact with viewers, a tradition incorporated into paintings by other Old Masters including Raphael and Velázquez.

“Our role here is to try to set a foundation — to open up paths for others to pursue, because actually, there’s a huge amount more that I think can be known,” said David Pullins, an associate curator of European paintings at the museum, of Pareja. “Hopefully, (the process of) filling out his life and biography will have only just begun.”

Correcting a major ‘blind spot’

Pareja may have become “instantly famous” thanks to Velázquez’s portrait, but his visibility within the art world has waxed and waned over the centuries. Misunderstandings about his work have persisted, in part because he was treated more as “a curiosity of history” than an authentic artist, according to Pullins.

That framing led to a widespread “blind spot” to the breadth of Pareja’s artistic output, despite two of his paintings being held in the collection of the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Pullins noted. By the 20th century, Pareja’s relationship to Velázquez had also been whitewashed — he was often referred to as the artist’s assistant or “friend” rather than an enslaved person.

Much of what is currently known about Pareja is thanks to Arturo Schomburg, an Afro-Latino historian of the Harlem Renaissance who dedicated his life to researching and recovering the cultural contributions of African diasporic figures history had ignored.

"The Baptism of Christ" is one of Juan de Pareja's large-scale religious works, but the patron is unknown.

In Schomburg’s research, he “wrote explicitly that he wants African American communities to understand that Juan de Pareja is part of our collective legacy of Black excellence,” said Vanessa K. Valdés, an educator and scholar on Schomburg’s life, who co-curated the exhibition.

But there are still many unknowns, from Pareja’s birth year to his family’s background to how he came to be enslaved by Velázquez and why he was freed. After the artist signed a manumission document to free him in 1650, Pareja became an established artist in Madrid, but much of his life there is a question mark, too.

Pareja must have had important, wealthy patrons, for instance, given the massive scale of his paintings “The Calling of Saint Matthew” and “Baptism of Christ,” but who they were is a mystery, Pullins said.

Reconsidering the ‘Golden Age’

Because of Pareja’s status in Velázquez’s studio, many art historians have incorrectly promoted the idea that Pareja continued to emulate his style. However, their differences are starkly clear to anyone viewing their respective works — while Velázquez’s shadowy portraits and scenes of everyday life are rendered with loose brushstrokes, Pareja’s crowded religious scenes are saturated in color.

By the time Velasquez dies in 1660, his painting style is “super respect(ed), but also really old-fashioned,” Pullins noted. “(Pareja) is really looking at the most contemporary art in Madrid… and developing his own language.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is showing the largest number of works by Pareja ever displayed in a single exhibition.

“He spends the last 20 years of his life free, creating a style that is distinct from the man who owned him,” Valdés added. “That space of mythmaking is partly because there is, I believe, a distinct discomfort with attributing humanity to those who were enslaved.”

The curators hope the Met show will not only raise Pareja’s profile as an important 17th-century artist, but underscore how slave labor underpinned Spain’s art and culture during its “Golden Age.” Pareja was part of an invisible class of workers contributing to the great paintings, sculptures, pottery and publishing of the era. As the exhibition catalog notes, he was far from the only enslaved person to go on to have an independent career in the arts, just one of the most famous to do so.

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Pullins also hopes the show will lead to more of Pareja’s work resurfacing. Some of his paintings remain lost or misattributed, only described in text, while others that had previously appeared on the art market were sold into private, anonymous hands.

One painting Pullins hopes will appear is a preciously small thing — an oil on copper less than two feet wide that bears a smaller version of “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” made soon after the original, circa 1661.

“It must be a beautiful object, because works on copper are always these jewel-like things,” Pullins said. “But it’s further testimony to the success of that painting that someone — perhaps Juan de Pareja himself, but more likely a patron — said, ‘I want to live with this image too,’ and he was commissioned to make it. And that’s a pretty amazing thing.”

Top Image: “The Calling of Saint Matthew” from 1661.