I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: NY, 1965.
Newbery Award for 1966

Juan de Pareja was the half-black slave of the famous painter Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez. Slave, assistant, friend and student in secret. He also was the subject of one of Velásquez' paintings. Juan was inherited from Velásquez' aunt. The book follows his time before joining Velásquez, his years as a faithful helper and companion, and some of his life after Velásquez dies.

Much of the story takes place at the court of King Phillip IV of Spain. The other main characters are the family of Velásquez and the king.

Having some knowledge of Velásquez and art history, I enjoyed the description of the family and studio life and the King's interaction. The King sent Velásquez to Italy twice to paint and collect art, so there is some of the Italian art discussed as well.

The story is very much a period piece, early seventeenth century, the Age of Enlightenment. The story even feels old, in a different style than nowadays. It is a first person account, though, so it still flows well.

After the Renaissance, Velásquez was one of the first painters to insist on painting what was truly there instead of embellishing. Primarily a portraitist, he was able to paint what was within as well as the body. He was also known for the incredible texture that he practiced, which was a precursor to the Impressionists.

One of the most interesting things about the book is when it was written. The story is Juan de Pareja's story, the slave, who learns to paint in secret through watching Velásquez with apprentices, because slaves are not allowed to create art. Years later when he reveals his secret, he is given his freedom and becomes a famous painter in his own right. We read of Velásquez only through the interaction with Pareja. So, the book was written in 1965 in the middle of violently contested civil rights. The subject being black freedom. Add to that the fact that Pareja was only half black, another issue that drove racism for decades or even centuries. The book must have been highly controversial when it was published. Many books have been similar in content and tone since. Though I have nothing to which I can compare from the 1960s or earlier, I would guess this book was a forerunner of this genre.

The issue of slavery in the 17th century was not controversial at all. It had been the norm for centuries, though not necessarily referring to blacks. A difference being that slaves back then more readily were allowed to earn their freedom. They were thought of more as conquered peoples rather than inferior. In this case, Pareja was considered part of the family or at least a companion. It seems likely that if he had indicated his desire for freedom, he might have received it sooner. He did stay with Velásquez until his death, continuing to learn from him.

related-black slavery, manumission, art and artists, art history, Spain and Italy in the 17th century, Spanish court under King Philip IV, Diego Velásquez
RL=7th and up

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