The events all take place during the first half of the seventeenth century, at first in Seville and later in Madrid, where Velazquez and King Philip live. Twice, Velazquez and Pareja visit Italy to buy art for their king. The people of Seville live in constant fear of the plague; Pareja's first owners die from the plague, and he nearly succumbs, too. His first mistress's nephew, Don Diego, inherits him, and Pareja is sent to Madrid to live with his new owners. Madrid is an exciting place, the center of an empire. Here, Pareja lives with Don Diego's family in a house that has a room open to most of the day's sunlight. In that room, Don Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez has his painting studio, and young Pareja learns to care for the artist's paints and other work materials. When Velazquez becomes painter to the king, he moves his work to a studio in the palace; again, it is a room with much sunlight during the day. As their relationship changes from that of master and slave to that of trusted friends, Pareja becomes Velazquez's indispensable assistant. When the king commissions him to journey to Italy and buy art for the palace, Velazquez takes Pareja with him. The two men are impressed by the masterworks of such artists as Michelangelo. On their first trip, they find that the society of art patrons is closed to them, but on their second trip, Pareja and Velazquez break into Italy's artistic society, and Velazquez wins high praise as a great portrait painter.
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Just as Velazquez advocates an artistic truthfulness that reveals the inner life of the subject as well as the outward appearance, I, Juan de Pareja presents inner truths as well as accurate historical facts. In her Newbery Award acceptance speech, Trevino declared, "I, Juan de Pareja tells a story I learned, loved, and researched many years before it was written." Her careful research shows everywhere. Seville and its people are colorfully portrayed; life in Madrid is presented in complex detail, creating the sense that Trevino herself visited the city and knew the people. The careful reconstruction of seventeenth-century Spain provides a realistic backdrop for the events of Pareja's life.
This well-constructed backdrop adds depth and believability to the novel's main characters. Trevino transcends the facts of history to examine the humanity of the people who made that history. Little is known about Velazquez's and Pareja's actual personalities, but the author constructs well-rounded characters from the skeletal facts available to her. Pareja narrates the novel from a perspective many years after Velazquez's death, when Pareja has become an esteemed painter himself. Although his narration makes him the novel's protagonist, Pareja shares much of the action with Velazquez, who is portrayed as idealistic and somewhat unworldly; although an artistic genius, he needs the level-headed Pareja to look after him. When Velazquez can find no work in...
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I, Juan de Pareja is unrelenting in its portrayal of both the harsh and the fascinating aspects of seventeenth-century Spain. The author depicts Carmelo's cruelty and the many humiliations of slavery, including the treatment of Pareja as a plaything. The straightforward presentations of unpleasant scenes never approach sensationalism. The point that slavery is a cruel and terrible life seems worth the emphasis Trevino's honest portrayal gives it, and the novel's theme of love tempers the cruelty.
The religious issues of I, Juan de Pareja may trouble some readers. The Catholic church is primarily shown in a positive light, and Pareja's religious faith serves as a source of strength in his hard life. Those who object to religious themes in their children's readings might object to this novel because religion is pervasive in the characters' lives. But religion's enormous influence on the daily life of seventeenth-century Spain is historical fact, and Trevino could hardly leave it out and maintain her novel's historical accuracy. Others might be distressed by some of the cruelty associated with religion, particularly the use of a dying man for Medina's depiction of Christ's crucifixion. The piety with which the crucifixion was committed and the victim's supposed consent may lead some readers to feel that their own faith is being criticized. Teachers should be prepared for questions about the depiction of Medina's methods; pointing out that it is...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why is Pareja not more resentful of the silly way his first mistress dresses him up?
2. Would Pareja have been better off if he had been left at the monastery rather than sent to live with Velazquez?
3. What are some of the ways Spanish society of the 1600s demeaned slaves? Note for instance how Pareja is called "Juanico" and how he is treated like a possession.
4. Why is Pareja so eager to be accepted as part of Velazquez's household?
5. Why is Pareja nearly always afraid?
6. How important is the concept of "truth" in I, Juan de Pareja? Note how truth is presented in different ways. There is artistic truth, being truthful with oneself, and being truthful with others.
7. Why does Pareja yearn to tell people of his painting when he knows that it could lead to severe punishment?
8. Will Lolis make a good wife for Pareja? She seems very different from him.
9. Is Velazquez a good man? Why does he not help Pareja much earlier than he does?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What is the history of slavery in Spain and its colonies? Were other ethnic groups besides blacks enslaved?
2. How did slavery in seventeenth-century Spain differ from slavery in England's American colonies?
3. Who was Bartolome Esteban Murillo, and why is he important? Be sure to describe at least one of his paintings, as well as to summarize his life and what modern critics and historians think of him.
4. Compare Trevino's descriptions of Velazquez's paintings with pictures of the paintings. Why does Trevino emphasize Velazquez's dedication to truth in art when he seems to have altered his portraits of King Philip to make him more handsome than he really was? Particularly note Velazquez's first portrait of the king, which the painter seems to have done twice—first with absolute accuracy, then painted over with a more idealistic version.
5. Write a short biography of Velazquez, emphasizing his place in the history of art.
6. Trevino says that all of her fiction deals with the theme of love. Is this true? How do her other novels for young adults deal with love? Do they have anything in common with I, Juan de Pareja?
7. Look up Velazquez's portrait of the pope. What were the circumstances surrounding the painting? What did the pope really think of it? Why is it a significant painting?
8. Search for examples in art books and poster collections for paintings by Juan de...
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Trevino has written a book about medieval Spain, Casilda of the Rising Moon, that tells the story of a Moorish princess who becomes a saint. Nacar, the White Deer is based on a historical event, the sending of an albino deer from the Philippines to Mexico in the seventeenth century. A story of daring and action, it is aimed at a somewhat younger audience than is I, Juan de Pareja. Beyond the Gates of Hercules is a fantasy about Atlantis that tells of the destruction wrought by a power-mad dictator.
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For Further Reference
Brown, Dale, et al. The World of Velazquez, 1599-1660. 1969. Rev. ed. New York: Time-Life, 1972. Reproduces many of Velazquez's paintings, tells about his life and times, and analyzes some of his work. A good introduction, but it says little about Pareja.
Costello, Clare. "Elizabeth Borton de Trevino." School Library Journal (March 1966): 126-127. An editor for the publishers of I, Juan de Pareja, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Costello summarizes Trevino's life and accomplishments up to 1966.
De Montreville, Doris, and Donna Hill, eds. Third Book of Junior Authors. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1972. In an autobiographical sketch, Trevino tells of her life and of her research for her books for...
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