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An eye-opening inspiration to dig deeper

The other day, I went to see an Exhibition at Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm. In a burst of patriotism, may I recommend that should you ever visit our fair capital you make this museum a stop on your tour – if nothing else for the spectacular views from the café/restaurant. This museum offers a varied selection of photography exhibitions, and when I was there last week, they were featuring Omar Victor Diop. Wow, what a collection of pics, that was! (Check the talented Mr Diop out here! )

One section, Diaspora, was dedicated to Mr Diop’s recreation of historical European portraits of people of African origins—people who were often former slaves, or born to slaves. And one such recreated portrait depicted Juan de Pareja, a contemporary of Diego Velázquez.

Say Diego Velázquez and those into art and the Golden Age of Spain will say “Las Meninas”. And yes, that is a pretty magnificent piece of art, but Velázquez was a versatile artist, interested not only in the hoity-toity (even if that did pay the bills) but also in depicting life as it was. And Juan de Pareja worked side by side with him, becoming a close friend, even.

I have of course seen Juan de Pareja’s work. I have even seen the portrait Diego Velázquez painted of him, but I have never actually reflected on the fact that he looks somewhat darker than the average European. After all, Spain had been something of a melting pot for centuries, what with the Muslim kingdoms, the Magrib incursions and what not. This may indicate I am incredibly naïve or very colourblind – alternatively, I simply didn’t expect Velázquez to collaborate with someone who wasn’t as Spanish as he was. (Narrowminded, that’s me. No: I’ll go with naïve, because I work very, very hard not to be narrowminded. . .)

Juan de Pareja, Metropolitan Museum

But hey, better late than never, which is why today’s post is dedicated to Juan de Pareja (well, not only. There was another Diop photo portrait that caught my attention)

Our Juan was born a slave, just outside of Málaga, sometime in the first decade of the 1600s. His father was deffo not a slave, but because his mother was, Juan was accorded the status of unfree upon birth. (As an aside, I find it utterly incomprehensible how white men could father children on their female slaves and then just shrug and condemn their offspring to future slavery. Ugh!)

Juan is described as a ‘morisco’, which would indicate his mother was of Moorish descent. We don’t really know much about his upbringing, but he does seem to have been taught to read and write, and somehow he ended up in Madrid, working for Velázquez. We know this because he witnessed a power of attorney on behalf of Velázquez in 1642. By then, Juan was pushing forty, and I hope he’d managed to fill the years prior to 1642 with some good memories.

At the time of signing that document, Juan was still a slave—and as he was working for Velázquez, somewhere along the line the famous painter had bought him. Why? Maybe he recognised talent in Juan, or maybe Juan was yet another worker among the many who were set to prime canvases, grind pigments, clean brushes and whatnot.

There is reference to a document purportedly dated in 1630 where a Juan de Pareja requests permission from the Sevillian authorities to travel to Madrid with his brother, there to complete his education as a free painter. The original document is long lost, and as we know for a fact that Juan wasn’t free in 1642, the reference is normally discounted. Unless, of course, our Juan just wanted to get away and lied. Stranger things have happened, right? So maybe he came to Madrid already in the 1630s, and maybe by the time he’d earned Velázquez trust to the point of being asked to witness documents, he’d already been working with Diego for well over a decade.

It is evident that Velázquez did trust Juan. He was asked to witness various documents, not only for Diego but also for his family members.  And I am hoping it was affection that had Velázquez deciding to have Juan sit for him in 1650, thereby producing the first known European portrait of a black man. He looks rather serious as he stares out at us from across the centuries, don’t you think?

In actual fact, it wasn’t only affection that had Velázquez committing Juan’s features to canvas. No, he was about to paint a portrait of the pope Innocentius X, and he worried about how to do this, as he had to work much, much faster than he normally did. So he practised by painting Juan.

Velázquez painting of Innocentius X. Quite eye-catching, IMO

In late 1650, Juan received his letter of manumission from Velázquez. The document gave Juan his freedom, provided that during the coming four years he did not try to run away or commit other crimes. Running away was apparently a crime for an enslaved person . . . Juan kept to the thin and narrow and became a free man—a free painter, even, who would go on to paint portraits and the ubiquitous religious paintings that were a must for any successful Spanish painter of the time.

Juan de Pareja: La vocación de San Matteo

Juan died in 1670. We don’t know if he left any family and I’m not even sure a slave was allowed to marry. But I hope that he did have someone special in his life—after all, we all deserve to have at least one person that misses us once we are gone!

Now, the other photo portrait that caught my eye was Mr Diop’s representation of Badin. As a Swede with an interest for history, I had of course heard of Badin before–and in this case, specifically because he was black. Still, Mr Diop’s portrait had me thinking Badin deserved some more air-space. Not that Badin was his name—it was the name given to him when he was presented as a a gift, a Kammermohr, to the then queen of Sweden Lovisa Ulrika.

Lovisa Ulrika’s elder sibling, Frederick (soon to be The Great) and Wilhelmina with a black servant

Kammermohrs were all the rage in the latter half of teh 17th century–at least among the high and mighty. In difference to their enslaved brethren on the plantations of the new world, the Kammermohr was viewed as an exotic accesory (!) and were often treated reasonably well – beyond the fact that they were unfree, which in itself sort of kills the issue, doesn’t it?
Back to Badin:
“A little savage,” the Danish envoy said, presenting her with the orphaned little slave boy from the Danish West Indies. “Might be a bit fun to have him running around, hey?” Lovisa Urika, to her great credit, saw the child, not the savage. While this lady was rumoured to be hard as flint and would give Machiavelli a run for his money when it came to political manoeuvring, she did have a heart, and the dark-skinned little boy apparently affected her.
“What’s his name?” she asked.
“Couchi,” the Danish man said. He sniffed. “You can rename him, of course. He won’t care, and with time he’ll respond to whatever you call him.”
And so Adolf Ludvig Gustav Fredrik Albert Badin (Badin from the French word badinage which means mischief) was born. I imagine quite a few of her family members raised an eyebrow or two at the long list of royal first names. (Lovisa Ulrika’s hubby was King Adolf Fredrik, her eldest Gustav, and Ludvig is Swedish for Louis) Maybe she chose them tongue-in-cheek. Whatever the case, her immediate family does not seem to have minded. They adopted Badin and at his official baptism, both the king and the crown prince stood as his godfathers.

Lovisa Ulrika was something of an intellectual, and Badin’s arrival coincided with her studies of Rousseau. Here, she decided, was a perfect opportunity to study just how a free education could shape a person. So our young Badin was allowed to address anyone in whatever way he pleased (which, effectively, meant using the French ‘tu’ rather then the more polite ‘vous’ ), no one scolded him for running round the table at dinner or even, at times, running about on the table. The Swedish courtiers were not exactly enamoured of the “wild child”, but over time the queen recognised the need to structure young Badin’s life, and by the time he was an adult he was possessed of a first class education. He spoke four languages fluently, could converse about all sorts of learned issues, knew everything that was happening at court—but was discretion itself. He never spoke of private matters, he never whispered and gossiped. Badin was loyal to the family that had taken him in and given him a life beyond what he could have ever dreamed of.

He was appointed the queen’s secretary and proved a diligent worker who brought order and structure into her life and various undertakings. He was also privy to all her secrets and her political intriguing—initially to strengthen her position vis-à-vis that of her husband’s, ultimately against her son, the young Gustav III. Gustav had ideas of his own as to how to manage his kingdom and had no desire to handle a meddling mama. In fact, he relegated her to the outer fringes. This permanently soured the relationship between two people who not only shared a sweet and mild exterior but also two hungry and ambitious intellects. And things went from bad to worse when Lovisa Ulrika went on theh record to state that the baby boy her son had just welcomed with joy and a royal salute had to be a cuckoo, as she knew for a fact his male appendage was…erm…deficient. (More of that HERE) Badin was, to some extent, caught in the middle—but he was always Lovisa Ulrika’s man first and foremost.

Gustav III – so sweet, right? And as hard-headed and ambitious as his mother

When she died, he hastened to fulfil her wishes and destroyed most of her secret notes—notes Gustav III very much wanted to get his hands on so as to suss out his potential political adversaries. He was angry when he realised what Badin had done. “Do you realise, black man, that such actions could cost you your head?” Upon which Badin replied. “My head is in your hands, my king, but I could do no other.” The king does not seem to have held onto his resentment. When Badin married later that year, he gave him a manor to complement the two he’d inherited from the Dowager Queen.

What I haven’t quite been able to ascertain is when Badin was formally manumitted. Clearly, he was treated like family by the royals he served, but when he married, the king had to stand in his stead as he wasn’t considered legally capable. Still, with time something must have been formalised, and by the time Badin died, he was deffo considered a free man. He was also relatively well-off.  The manors he’d received had guaranteed him a good living, and he’d spent a sizeable sum of his earnings on books. This “little savage” had assembled a library of over 1 000 books—most of them in French.

Badin survived both the queen who took him in, the kings he’d grown up with (Gustav III was murdered at a masquerade ball, his cuckoo (?) son was ultimately forced to abdicate and Gustav’s younger brother Carl became king ) Did he have any memories of his early childhood in a warm and distant land? I don’t know. I am quite sure, however, that he had fond recollections of the queen who opened her heart to him and gave him an education, a family and a life. Lovisa of Ulrika is generally remembered as something of  Prussian ice-queen, but Adolf Ludvig Gustav Fredrik Albert Badin proves that beneath that hard façade there beat a warm and generous heart. On occasion, at least!

4 thoughts on “An eye-opening inspiration to dig deeper”

  1. Thank you — this is a valuable addition to our knowledge of how people of color were everywhere in Europe, but ignored in narratives in favor of their neighbors of a lighter hue.
    Spain used art as a way of bringing South Americans into the Catholic Church — many artists were sent there for a few years to adorn the New World Cathedrals and churches. They worked with local talent, learned new techniques, and left an incredible legacy of beautiful objects.
    A few years ago I saw an exhibit of 17th century artwork in San Diego, California which drew from Puerto Rico, Brazil, Panama etc. and was amazed at the famous names represented and the craftsmanship and variety of works represented.
    It’s hard for me to juggle an enlightened policy like this with the Inquisition — the carrot and the stick!

    1. As I write this, I need but to look slightly to teh left to see the little painting in the Cuzco school representing the Virgin, Josef and the Holy Child – one of those paintings that were produced by local artists under European supervision. I grew up in Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, and my father was a man of artistic talent who invested a lot of time and effort in exploring the art scenes in these countries, befriending contemporary artists like Botero as he went. He was told by a professor of art in Lima that very often during the early colonial period, canvases were sent out from Europe to the local workshops complete with prepainted hands (and sometimes faces) this to ensure “adequate” representation of features when it came to all the saints that were to be painted. So maybe not quite as enlightened 😉
      Glad you enjoyed the post!

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