'Master of blue jeans' holds key to fashion riddle

Workaday staple and fashion favourite, blue jeans have conquered the planet. But were they born in the textile mills of New Hampshire, on France's southern coast or the looms of north Italy?

Art historians believe they have found a piece of the centuries-old puzzle in the work of a newly discovered 17th-century north Italian artist, dubbed the "Master of the Blue Jeans", whose paintings went on show in Paris this week.

Running through his works like a leitmotif is an indigo blue fabric threaded with white, with rips revealing its structure, in the skirts of a peasant woman or the jacket of a beggar boy.

"The works are very attached to the detail of clothing - it was very rare for a painter to characterise the poor with such detail," said curator Gerlinde Gruber, who helped to identify the anonymous artist's works.

"And there is blue jean in every painting except one," she said.

Other details in his work, such as a knotted white kerchief in a painting entitled "Mother Sewing", enabled curators to locate the scenes in northern Italy, in the region of Venice.

Historians have long traced jeans' ancestry to two sources outside the United States: a sturdy fabric from the French city of Nimes - "de Nimes", hence "denim" - on the one hand, and a cotton fustian from Genoa in Italy - "Genes" in French, becoming "Jeans" in English - on the other.

But unlike the finery worn by the upper classes, the clothes of the peasant classes were used until shredded through, leaving no trace.

Until now there were only fragmented written records to rely on to document the shipments of low-cost fabric that flooded from Genoa into northern Europe - and especially England - in the mid-17th century.

"We have accounts from an English tailor saying that his fabric came from Genoa, and that is the origin of jeans," said Gruber. "But this gives us new documentary proof of a historical reality that has been forgotten."

In a further quirk, the blue tint of the fabric was painted with the exact same indigo as that used to dye today's denim, according to curators.

Centuries later, husband and wife design team Francois and Marithe Girbaud earned a reputation as modern-day masters of the jeans world - as pioneers of the baggy hip-hop look, of stonewashing or stretch denim.

"This calls into question the entire history we have been telling up until now," said Francois Girbaud, who partnered with the Paris exhibition. "And that's what's fun."

"In people's minds, jeans used to be all about Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, about the United States," he said. "Nimes or Genoa? I don't have the answer. But it's amusing to think that jeans already existed in 1655."

Ten paintings have been attributed to the Italian artist, eight of which are on show in Paris alongside works by contemporaries such as Michael Sweerts or Giacomo Ceruti, loaned from museums and private collections in Rome and Vienna.

How they came together in Paris is a detective story in itself.

In 2004, the Paris-based gallery owner Maurizio Canesso bought a work in New York by an unknown artist of the Neapolitan school.

Trying to track down the origins of the painting, "The Barber's Shop", Canesso found a copy in a museum in Varese near Milan and says "that was when the search really began."

At the same time in Italy, unknown to him, Gruber had been joining the dots between works she believed to be by the same artist, who she dubbed "The Master of the Blue Jeans" because of the recurring presence of the fabric.

Her search began after two works thought to be by his hand surfaced within a short space of time - the "Woman sewing with two children" and the "Beggar boy with a piece of pie".

Canesso's curiosity was aroused by a 2006 article in which Gruber described the paintings, and over the following few years he purchased all the available works attributed to the artist.

With their use of vivid blue set against chiraoscuro backdrops, and focus on humble everyday scenes, the works' value is estimated at between 60,000 and 800,000 euros according to the Canesso gallery.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine