Juan is born into slavery in Seville, Spain in the early 1600s, and after the death of his mother, when he is just five years old, he becomes the pageboy of a wealthy Spanish lady, Emilia. Upon her death, during one of many plagues to sweep through Spain, Juan is inherited by Emilia’s nephew, the painter Diego Velazquez.
Juan is an honourable and loyal slave who grows to deeply love his master. He works for him as a canvas-stretcher and paint grinder and becomes his good companion. However, his passion for painting – something which was illegal for slaves in Spain – leads him to deceive his master, and he secretly steals paints and makes his own artistic studies in his room. Juan accompanies Velazquez and his family when King Philip IV of Spain requests they move into his court, and assists the painter in his many portraits of the King and his family. He also accompanies Velazquez to Rome for a portrait of Pope Innocent X, and the portraits of many other Italian noblemen. Juan eventually takes the advice of a young apprentie, Murillo, to find a suitable time to tell his master of his secret. The opportunity comes when the King discovers one of Juan’s paintings. Juan confesses to both King and master, and Velazquez generously grants him his freedom, feeling remorse that he had not done so before.
The story is based on known facts of the life of Velazquez and his freed slave, Juan de Pareja. It is imbued with a rich Christian ethic and care for people that the author perceives in Velazquez’s artwork. It also explores the painting style and attitude of master Velazquez, his focus on portraying the beauty of realism rather than creating an embellished and beautified reality. Slavery is presented as an injustice which the author presumes her readers understand, but without bitterness, since her characters are able to rise above it. Overall, the book is well written, full of interesting information and is a moving story of friendship and generosity.
The New York Times Book Review says it all for me: “This brilliant historical novel captures and holds the attention from its rhythmic opening sentence – ”I, Juan de Pareja, was born into slavery“ – all the way through to the end. A splendid book, vivid, unforgettable.”
Clare Cannon lives in Sydney where she is the manager of Portico Books.