I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

Our mother-daughter book club recently elected to read this Newberry Award-winning 1965 historical novel. The reluctance registered by my fifteen-year-old, whose tastes incline heavily toward fantasy, was overridden by academically minded moms. But she soon found it much more interesting than she anticipated.

The 17th-century Spanish setting was, she said, so different as to seem almost another world. As the title suggests, the book is the fictional memoir of Juan de Pareja (1606–1670), an African slave inherited by Spanish court painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660). The narrative devotes brief attention to Pareja’s early life, about which little is known. It then follows his journey into the household of Velazquez, who is soon summoned by King Philip IV of Spain to set up a studio in the palace.

Pareja enjoys an amicable relationship with Velazquez, but he regrets that, as a slave, he is forbidden to learn and practice the arts. Watching Velázquez and the assistants he tutors, Pareja begins to draw and paint in secret. One of the apprentices, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, sees and encourages Pareja’s efforts.

At length Pareja makes his abilities known to both Velázquez and the king. Velázquez’s response is to grant Pareja his freedom, enabling him to paint without violating Spanish law. The narrative continues through Velazquez’s death, ten years later, although with little detail. (In several respects Treviño adjusts or telescopes chronology to suit the novel format.)  

Elements of I, Juan de Pareja reminded me of Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 historical novel Girl with the Pearl Earring. Both are written from the perspective of a servant in the home of a great 17th-century painter. And both point of view characters observe closely the painter’s mode of work and are engaged to assist with basic tasks such as creating paints or constructing canvases.

But despite the popularity and artfulness of Girl with the Pearl Earring, I found the short volume rather hard going. The prospects and destiny of the young woman serving in the household of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) are not dismal. But neither are they promising, and Chevalier makes little effort to provide her protagonist, Griet, with a source of hope or purpose.

It is possible—even likely—that Treviño minimized the injustices of Pareja’s position. His complacency is offset by the resentment of Lolis, a woman who joins the household as a slave and eventually marries Pareja. Though Lolis develops an affection for Valezquez’s wife, she never reconciles herself to her position.

Authors who can retain reader interest in the absence of intense action always intrigue me. Despite the ruminative tone of I, Juan, the portrayals of setting and characterheld the attention of five teen girls. Treviño’s own memoir, My Heart Lies South, is now on my to-read list. The publisher’s blurb reads:

“When a thoroughly twentieth-century American lady journalist becomes a Mexican señora in nineteen-thirties’ provincial Monterrey … she finds herself—sometimes hilariously—coping with servants, daily food allowances, bargaining, and dramatic Latin emotions. … Treviño brings to life her experiences with the culture and the faith of a civilization so close to the United States, but rarely appreciated or understood.”

If Treviño’s personal experiences are as vividly rendered as Pareja’s, they should make fascinating reading.

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