Book Review: I, Juan de Pareja

Trevino, Elizabeth Borton de. I, Juan de Pareja. New York, NY: Bell Books, 1966.

Juan is the slave of the great Spanish painter Diego Valazquez and helps his master in his studio by preparing paints and stretching canvases. But Juan is an artist, too: he has taught himself by watching his master’s technique. Although such work is forbidden by slaves, Jaun cannot keep his secret any longer.What will happen when the truth is known?

I, Juan de Pareja is the Newbery Award winner for 1966. I love that this book is about artists in the 1600s, and I was listening to the audiobook alongside my reading of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, which is about two kids who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in the 1960s. It seems fitting to me, though Michaelangelo died almost 100 years before Don Diego was born.

I was not looking forward to this book, to be honest. Why? Because it is an “old” book, and because I’m not always interested in historical fiction. And because the person who recommended it to me is someone who often has a polar opposite opinion of a book from what I think. I was skeptical, but it’s a Newbery winner and I’m determined to read all of the winners, so by that virtue alone I knew I was going to have to read it. I got the e-audiobook from my library through Overdrive and listened in the car last week on my work commute… until last Friday, when I got to work with under a half hour left to listen to, so I read the rest that morning.

Juan de Pareja, fondly called Juanico, is a slave who is treated very well by his Spanish mistress. After her death, he is bequeathed to her nephew Diego, who also treats him very well. Juanico learns from Diego how to wash brushes, mix colors, and stretch canvases, but he also pays close attention to how Diego paints, and listens to the lessons he teaches his apprentices over the years. Juanico begins to draw secretly, and when he feels he has practiced enough starts painting. He can’t tell anyone about his hobby because slaves are not allowed to create art.

I loved the friendship between the two men who are very different on the outside, a Spaniard and a black slave, but at heart they are very similar. Juanico is taken care of, and can have anything he asks for, but he doesn’t feel the need to ask for anything. He cares for Diego and his family, and Lolis (a slave girl who comes to service for Diego’s wife when she is ill) observes late in the novel, “I can see that you love these white people… I do not.” And he tells her, “They have been good to me.” This exchange shows that most slaves, or at least Lolis, were not treated nearly as well as Juanico.

The friendship between the men is fabricated by the author, as are many details, to flesh out the story. There is an afterword that tells which details come from history and which were invented for the story. The reader can also take the names of the paintings mentioned and look them up online to see what they look like, making this book a great jumping off point for a history lesson. (This site, for example, shows the painting Velazquez did of Juanico, and the one he did of Pope Innocent X.)