I, Juan de Pareja

I-Juan-de-Pareja

NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1966

I, Juan de Pareja

by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

Age: 11+

Interests: history, art history, painting, Spain, biography, slavery, racism

Bell Books / Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 1965

Also by this author: Nacar the White Deer, A Carpet of Flowers, Even as You Love, My Heart Lies South, Where the Heart Is

Other biographies about slavery: Amos Fortune, Free Man

This is a novel about the imagined life of a fascinating true figure from history. Juan de Pareja was part African, born into slavery in Spain in the early 1600s. His mother was the slave of a wealthy Spanish lady, and when he was orphaned at the age of five he became the lady’s pageboy. Though dressed in satin and doted upon, his mistress is capricious and occasionally cruel, and he soon realizes that, to her, he is on the same level as her little dog. She does, however, teach him to read, which was very uncommon for slaves at that time. When she dies suddenly of the plague, little Juan is sent, along with all her belongings, to her nephew in Madrid. Which is how the boy comes into the employ of the great painter Diego Velázquez.

Juan serves his new master with great loyalty and dedication. His job is to stretch and prepare canvases, mix paints, and clean brushes. By observing carefully all that his master does, Juan learns to paint, although he must keep his work a secret, for it was illegal for slaves to make art. Juan continues to serve Diego well, accompanying him into the palace as he paints portraits of the shy King Philip IV of Spain, and even to Rome to paint Pope Innocent X. Once Velázquez learns that Juan has become a painter of great talent, he immediately sits down and writes the letter giving him his freedom. Juan continues to assist Velázquez until his death in 1660.

This is a well-written and thoughtful depiction of life in Madrid at that time, and the life of artists. Both Juan and Diego are admirable characters – restrained, refined gentlemen passionately dedicated to art. For readers interested in art history, be sure to look up the specific paintings that are referred to in the novel, especially the one portrait that Velázquez painted of his dear friend and assistant. As well, there is an interesting mystery surrounding the famous painting Las Meninas, as the Cross of Santiago (on the breast of the painter) was painted in by another hand after Velázquez’ death. The author presents her own version of what might have happened in this novel.

A very good historical fiction, though some may find it a slow read.

 

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.