Title: I, Juan de Pareja
Author: Elizabeth Borton de Treviño
Major Themes: Art, Painting, Slavery, Spain
Synopsis: Juan, the slave of the court painter in Spain, wants to learn to paint, but is forbidden by law.
A Spanish artist and his African slave, in the 17th century. Is that an unusual topic for a book? I, Juan de Pareja tells a true story, however. Juan was a real person, and so was his master, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velasquez, court painter in Spain. We thoroughly enjoyed this story.
The story opens with the death of Juan’s mistress and the entire household except for Juan. When he recovered, he was sent, along with his mistress’s belongings, on a nightmarish journey from Seville to Madrid, to become the property of his mistress’s nephew, the artist Diego Velasquez. Once there, he became part of the family, helping his master every day in the studio. His greatest wish, however, was against the law. Would he ever be allowed to learn to paint?
As Juan tells his story, we learn a lot about life in Spain during the Renaissance. Juan had an easy life, for a slave, but the one thing above all others that he wanted to do was denied him by law. When he finally admitted to doing it, would the king order him to be punished?
I really liked this book. The characters were very real. I also liked the way the author introduces the reader to painting during the Renaissance. Even though there is not as much of a plot as in many books we read—this is the story of a man’s life, rather than a mystery—we still wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next.
WARNING: Chapter 5 mentions painting from the nude, and actually crucifying men to get their expressions of agony right (this is when Juan toured someone else’s studios). In chapter 12 someone uses the expression “by Bacchus”.
Listening Level—Ages 10 – 12
Reading Independently—Ages 10 – 12, 12 – 15