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I, Juan de Pareja

Style: Good

Attitude: Edifying

This review was contributed by Clare Cannon, Portico Books

In Brief: Based on what is known of the life and household of the Spanish painter Diego Velazquez, this is a sensitive fictional account of the life of Juan de Pareja, a black Spaniard and slave-cum-friend of the painter. Friendship, loyalty, mercy and generosity are beautifully illustrated, and issues of slavery and cruelty are explored with a modern understanding of their evil, but in a way that is not unbelievable in the story's context.

Author: Elizabeth Borton de TreviƱo

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Published in: 1965

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: 17th C

Setting: Spain: Seville, Madrid

Genres:  BiographicalHistorical


Characters:

  • Juan de Pareja is a black Spaniard born into slavery in the early 1600s, who eventually comes to be owned by the painter Diego Velazquez. Juan is devoted to his master, but deceives him by making a secret study of painting, something which is against law for slaves. The passion for painting spurs his desire for freedom, but he never wishes to abandon his good master.
  • Diego Velazquez is Juan's master, a famous painter seconded to work for King Philip IV of Spain, Pope Innocent X, and nobles from the Spanish and Italian courts. A quiet man devoted to his craft, his family, his King and his faith, and capable of great generosity.
  • Bartolome Murillo is another famous Spanish painter who is briefly apprenticed to Velazquez, and who understands and encourages Juan's secret painting but also counsels his return to the Sacraments. He treats Juan as a friend rather than a slave.

Synopsis:

Juan is born into slavery in Seville, Spain in the early 1600s, and after the death of his mother when he is just five years old he becomes the pageboy of a wealthy Spanish lady, Emilia. Upon her death, during one of many plagues to sweep through Spain, Juan is inherited by Emilia's nephew, the painter Diego Velazquez.

Juan is an honourable and loyal slave who grows to deeply love his master. He works for him as a canvas-stretcher and paint grinder and becomes his good companion. However, his passion for painting - something which was illegal for slaves in Spain - leads him to deceive his master, and he secretly steals paints and makes his own artistic studies in his room.

Juan accompanies Velazquez and his family when King Philip IV of Spain requests they move into his court, and assists the painter in his many portraits of the King and his family. He also accompanies Velazquez to Rome for a portrait of Pope Innocent X, and the portraits of many other Italian noblemen.

Juan feels remorse for his secret deception, but knows he cannot give it away, so he withdraws from receiving the Sacraments when he accompanies his master to Church. Murillo, the cheerful young artist-apprentice who comes to learn from master Velazquez, understands Juan's passion but encourages him to return to the Sacraments, explaining that it is not a sin to paint, and that he won't need to steal paints in future since he will give them to him himself.

Juan is overjoyed to return to the practice of his faith, and takes Murillo's advice to find a suitable time in future to tell his master of his secret. The opportunity comes when the King discovers one of Juan's paintings, Juan confesses to both King and master, and Velazquez generously grants him his freedom, feeling remorse that he had not done so before.

Notes:

The story is based on known facts of the life of Velazquez and his freed slave, Juan de Pareja. It is imbued with a rich Christian ethic and care for people that the author perceives in Velazquez's artwork. It also explores the painting style and attitude of master Velazquez, his focus on portraying the beauty of realism rather than creating an embellished and beautified reality.

Slavery is presented as an injustice which the author presumes her readers understand, but without bitterness, since her characters are able to rise above it. Overall, the book is well written, full of interesting information and is a moving story of friendship and generosity.

The New York Times Book Review says it all for me: “This brilliant historical novel captures and holds the attention from its rhythmic opening sentence - ”I, Juan de Pareja, was born into slavery“ - all the way through to the end. A splendid book, vivid, unforgettable.”

Themes:

  • Painting
  • Royal culture
  • Slavery

“I feel uneasy about this portrait. I must do some practice studies first. I arranged for the first sitting a month from now.” He began to flex his hand and stare unhappily at his fingers.

“Paint me, Master! Paint a portrait of me!”

He had often made sketches of me and set the apprentices to painting me, but now I saw him studying me with a new look, a cool detached, intent look. I saw him mentally drawing my round cheek, my heavy nose and lips, the line of my moustache and beard, my eyes.

“Come,” he said, pushing away his wine and fruit. “Come, we will buy a canvas. Yes, I will paint you, Juanico. As you are, loyal and resourceful and good. And also proud and dignified. God guide my hand.”

Monday 7th May 2007