1966: I, Juan de Pareja (a portrait of a slave)


Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

Elizabeth Borton de Trevino’s I, Juan de Pareja tells the inspiring story of a slave turned artist in 17th century Spain.

The book dutifully follows the long life of Juan de Pareja, who becomes a slave to Diego Velazquez, a painter who is commissioned by King Philip IV to paint his portrait. Juan comes to have the same appreciation for art as his master as he assists Diego and poses for portraits for his students. He gradually learns the craft and secretly begins to paint on his own works even though it is forbidden since he is a slave.

The focus on artwork sets this book apart from other Newbery Medal winners. It follows a similar trajectory as The Cat Who Went to Heaven, except that there is a greater appreciation for art within this book’s pages. Juan gets deeply involved in the processes behind painting, which allows the reader to get an intimate view of the techniques that are involved with painting.

Despite an interesting premise, I found the story to be slow-moving and tedious to get through. Written in first person, the reader is stuck with Juan’s monotonous narration as he gets caught up in his artwork and falls in love with another slave. It reads similar to a memoir – which may or may not be your cup of tea.

I, Juan de Pareja gives some keen insights into the everyday life of an artist and reflects the vibrant culture of 17th century Spain. For avid lovers of history and art, this book provides some interesting insights into a cultured period from our past.


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