African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Arthur Schomburg (Arturo Schomburg), "In Quest of Juan de Pareja" (1927)

In Quest of Juan de Pareja
Arthur A. Schomburg

The Crisis, July 1927

As a pupil of history under José Julian Acosta, I always yearned to see the cities of Spain and be able to recall there the historic and fascinating events dealing with black people which are chronicled in her history. The pleasure came to me last summer. I stopped at Cordoba and drew inspiration early  in the morning from a visit to the labyrinth and the mystic Mezquita where  the Spaniards built the famous cathedral. Late one afternoon I came to Grenada, where Sebastian Gomez, the “Mulato de Murillo” and Juan de  Pareja, the slave of Valazquez, were born.

I strolled through the spacious avenue of El Gran Capitan; tarried in  the beautiful, filigree sculptured cathedral and saw the sarcophagus of Ferdinand and Isabella, the patrons of Columbus. I walked through the cloisters of the University where one may still see the minutes attesting the  fact that a black man, Juan Latino, received here, on May 4, 1546, his B.A. degree before the archbishop of Grenada, the learned men of Spain and the élite of the city. I saw the house where he wrote his famous epigrammatic poems “to adorn the triumphal arches erected to Don Juan of Austria upon his return from the battle of Lepanto”. I saw the home of Leo Africanus, ‘“‘a Moor born in Grenada and brought up in Barbarie”’, and the home of the Negro priest who was seen now and then with Latino and the King of Spain, walking through the streets of Grenada. In the church of Santa Ana, which I visited, the learned Dr. Latino used to pay his devotions to the Eternal Father.

I walked up the hill to the Alhambra and saw in the sunshine the legacies of. that civilization, which grew luxuriantly like an exotic plant native, yet foreign, to Spain. What a happy chance it was to walk through these courts and passages to see the crenelated walls and enjoy the infinite charm of the arabesques; to look up and see the cerulean canopy perfect in its symmetry and look down and see the masterly work of the Moorish artisans and the inscriptions of the Koran, mute with eloquence! It was like drinking and eating nectar and ambrosia. May eternal blessings rest on the brow of Washington Irving, who awakened in the hearts of the Spanish people a realization of this treasure in their hands! It was his work that dtove out the marauding Gypsies and led the government to a sense of its duty in the preservation for posterity of these architectural jewels of Africa. I had hoped in Grenada, to find somewhere a picture of Latino and to settle the racial identity of Leo Africanus and of the Gypsies, who, I have no doubt, had Negroid blood; but I had to leave with no proof. 
All day long, the engine puffed and blowed as we passed through lands that had given up life and crumbled and over hills and valleys rolling and undulating, heavy with olives, wheat and grapes. At Aranjuez, we stopped at the summer  residence of the Kings of Spain and then landed in Madrid and walked the Gran Via. This is the show place of the capital of Spain, a modern thoroughfare stretching itself onward and forward across the old, quaint, narrow streets of medieval days. Bright and early next morning, I went down to the Prado in quest of the painting by Juan de Pareja. What a treasure house is this great museum! What beautiful paintings and how well preserved and protected! Many of them look as fresh as though they were painted yesterday. The copy of the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci is to me more ravishing than the one in the Louvre. All the masters are here: Rubens, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, El Greco, Van Dyke and, of course, Velazquez, Murillo and Goya. But I had come to the Prado to see one painting, “The Calling of Matthew”. I had journeyed thousands of miles to look upon the work of this colored slave who had succeeded by courageous persistence in the face of every discouragement. I therefore turned from the main rooms of this paradise of color on a beautiful day of July and asked the attendant how I could get to the sections upstairs. “Sorry, sir,” he* answered, “but they are closed for repairs.” But I had not crossed the Atlantic Ocean to be refused sight of Pareja’s painting. I asked for the Director and met a pleasant and suave Castillian who received me cordially. I told him that my mission to Madrid was to see a picture hanging on the walls of this museum, painted by a Negro who had been the slave pupil of Spain’s most famous painter. We chatted in the language of Lopez de Vega and Calderon de la Barca, then the Director took a bunth of antiquated keys and we journeyed to the upper floor where he opened section after section until we reached the famous painting. I sat in reverent silence before this large canvass, where fifteen persons are depicted and was glad of the opportunity thus given me to see this work and to tell my people in America of this further claim back in the 17th century to a place in the republic of arts and letters.

Pareja succeeded in mastering the details of grinding pigments which have preserved in such remarkable freshness, his master’s work, so that even today they look like human beings stepping out of the canvasses. Encouraged by this, Pareja took to drawing and improved himself by careful and painstaking observation of his master’s technic. Velazquez grew to admire his dark pupil and when the Duke of Olivares engaged him to gather canvasses in Rome for the palaces of Philip IV, he took his slave along and while there, he painted Pareja and sent the picture to the Pantheon. Justi says: “The painter Andreas Schmidt, at this time in Rome, afterwards related in Madrid that when it was taken with other good paintings, old and new, to adorn the cloisters of the Pantheon on the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19, 1650) as was at that time customary, it met with such universal approbation that in the unanimous opinion of the painters of various nationalities, all else seemed painting, this alone truth. In recognition of this, Velazquez became a Roman Academition in the same year, 1650.”

The picture printed in this number of The Crisis is a reproduction from a copy of the Roman painting now preserved in England in the collection of the Earl of Carlisle. Justi, in his book. on “Diego Velazquez and His Times”, published in London in 1899, notes: “The half length figure of the meztizo stands out on the light grey ground traced with a broad, firm brush and spare impasto on the canvas.” He notes the flashing black eyes with an almost haughty gaze and the evidence of African blood in the frizzly hair, the nose and lips and the coppery brown shining skin. He concludes that this is really the portrait of Pareja because it agrees with his own likeness in ““The Calling of Matthew” ; but he thinks that Velazquez has accentuated the African features and Pareja, the European. Curtis, the American, in his book on Velazquez, naturally doubts that Pareja is a Negro, but there is no real question but that he was. The Director of the Museum said: 

“It is the only picture of Pareja that we have and we  prize it as among the rarest of the collections of the Prado.” 

In Seville, I saw three other pictures done by the hands of a Negro. In the Baptisiry of the Basilica to the left. of the main entrance, there was the “Immaculate Conception” by Sebastian Gomez, the mulatto servant of Murillo. It hangs near Murillo’s “St. Anthony” and still shows the marks of the vandal hands where it was cut out and afterward retrieved by William Schaus of America. In the Treasury is the “Holy Family” and in the Sacristy, “Christ Attached to a Column”. These three glorious canvasses have been saved by Providence to further attest the work of the Negro painters in the 17th century. The fact that the works of Gomez and Pareja have been mistaken by some art critics for those of their masters is proof of their distinctive merit.

May these canvasses live long in their respective sanctuaries and may many American Negroes traveling through Spain have an opportunity to see and enjoy these silent masterpieces perfumed by the spirit of the Prado of Madrid and the incense of the Basilica of Sevilla!

Published in The Crisis, July 1927


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