The Renaissance jean jacket

The origins of denim are cloudy. Both Nîmes, France, and Genoa, Italy, claim to be its birthplace, and they both have solid grounds for the claim. The André family produced the sturdy cotton twill dyed indigo known as serge de Nîmes (hence denim) for generations, but Genoa claims to have produced jeans for sailors and fishermen since the 1500s. Although those jeans started off brown, eventually they switched to that characteristic indigo color and became known as Bleu de Genes (hence blue jeans).

The Genoese material was cheap and popular all over Europe and even in the US. George Washington himself encountered denim production when he toured the largest cotton mill in the country in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1789. It would only begin to climb the heights of pop culture fame once Levi Strauss started making his riveted 501 jeans in the 1920s. (He claimed in his advertising to have made his first overalls out of denim for California Gold Rush prospectors in 1849, but he was fibbing. His company only started producing denim overalls in the 1870s, after they patented their rivets.)

One thing we know for sure is denim was a working class fabric. It was tough as hell and could be worn for years by people who rode them hard and, especially in the case of the Genoese sailors, put them away wet. Cowboys, railway workers, fishermen, beggars and lumberjacks didn’t often get their daily lives documented for the historical record, and while high-end textiles are sometimes carefully conserved over the centuries, jeans got worn until they fell apart.

Woman Begging with Two ChildrenThat’s why the discovery of an anonymous Northern Italian painter who depicted poor people wearing denim in the mid to late 1600s is such a surprising find. The fact that he painted the poor going about their business is rare enough; the fact in all but one of his recently-discovered works they’re wearing clearly identifiable jeans skirts, trousers and jackets is unheard of. It has earned him a snazzy anachronistic moniker, too: the Master of Blue Jeans.

“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.”

The Barber Shop“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.

Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie The paintings are currently on display in the Canesso Gallery in Paris. My favorite is “Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie” (see picture to the right) because that jacket is so totally a jeans jacket. I seriously had one just like it junior high, only I intentionally put tears in mine to look cool. Abject poverty has made Beggar Boy look cool naturally.


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Comment by edahstip
2010-09-26 09:57:54

Something seems fishy with all these paintings suddenly turning up.

Comment by livius drusus
2010-09-26 11:06:16

It’s not sudden at all. If you read the article you’ll see it took 4 years for Canesso to find the paintings.

Comment by edahstip
2010-09-26 11:28:26

4 years after 300 is pretty sudden.

Comment by livius drusus
2010-09-26 13:24:49

It’s not like they sprang from nowhere, though. They were in museums and collections. It took 4 years just to track them all down.

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Comment by edahstip
2010-09-26 13:44:24

Yes, very convenient.

Comment by livius drusus
2010-09-26 13:52:39

I’m not sure what you’re alleging here. Are you suggesting that the paintings are not actually from the 17th century but rather modern forgeries?

Comment by edahstip
2010-09-26 14:10:35

I’m not alleging anything, rather just being skeptical. A number of paintings previously thought to be unrelated have (mostly) been bought by someone and put on display. Not as a group of paintings with a similar theme, but as the work of a previously unknown and still anonymous artist, dubbed a ‘master.’

They could all be genuine and the story is true, or they could be genuine and unrelated. Part of the problem is the lack of detail in the article. Next to nothing is written about the provenance of the works. They aren’t said to have been traced to a particular place and time. Nor is there any word of independent historians having examined and supported the conclusions. The article presents a chain of conclusions without verification or explanation of how they were reached.

Comment by livius drusus
2010-09-26 14:50:25

Fair enough. It’s certainly true that the article doesn’t lay out the circumstances in detail. As is so often the case with news stories about historical finds, the press prefers to zoom in on the central gimmick and run with it with few qualifications.

However, Canesso didn’t actually buy all the paintings on display. Some are on loan from other museums and collections. Also, it was not he who attributed authorship or coined the name, but rather Gerlinde Gruber of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. She published her findings in the Italian art journal Nuovi Studi in 2007, which I looked for but couldn’t find online.

Comment by edahstip
2010-09-26 21:16:39

I’ve reread the paragraph about ownership and loans and frankly, can’t make out which is which.

“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.”

It sort of reads that the loaned works are from the contemporary artists, but it isn’t very clear. Later on, the article states, “over the following few years he[Canesso] purchased all the available works attributed to the artist.” That’s what lead me to read the previous statement as indicating that Canesso owned all of the displayed works by the mystery artist.

Comment by luke
2010-09-29 23:16:26

Most of those details you are looking for are in this link (hyperlinked in the article)

Comment by Angakuk
2010-10-05 12:12:15

edahstip wrote “It sort of reads that the loaned works are from the contemporary artists, but it isn’t very clear.”

Talk about lack of clarity! I would like to point out that the “contemporary artists” (i.e. Sweerts & Ceruto) were contemporary with the unknown Italian artist and not contemporary in the sense of being modern artists.

Comment by Angakuk
2010-10-05 12:25:23

edahstip wrote “Later on, the article states, ‘over the following few years he[Canesso] purchased all the available works attributed to the artist.’ That’s what lead me to read the previous statement as indicating that Canesso owned all of the displayed works by the mystery artist.”

Note that the article states that he purchased all the “available” works. Available may well refer to those works that were available f0r purchase. It does not state that he bought all the extant, known, identified, etc. works. It also does not state that he owns all of those paintings by the unknown artist that are on display in the current show. It could be that he does, but concluding that he does would be an unwarranted assumption.

Comment by BroM
2010-09-27 13:01:23

This is terrible news! TERRIBLE! We’re going to have to disrupt and bugger our entire lexicon! FREEDOM jackets and FREEDOM pants and FREEDOM skirts! DENIM IS OF THE DEVIL OR AT LEAST MIGHT BE PANSY FRENCH!


Comment by edahstip
2010-09-27 20:33:53

I say we call them ‘bleu jeans’ instead.

Comment by daveaeve
2010-09-29 23:40:58

:skull: :skull: :skull:

its a conspiracy to conceal the truth… we’ve been domesticated, suburbanized and commercialized for much longer than they are letting on

Comment by livius drusus
2010-09-30 12:43:39

Yeah, just because he didn’t paint the brand patch doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Comment by Randdaddy
2010-09-30 12:25:13

Bet they still made their ass look big!

Comment by livius drusus
2010-09-30 12:44:18

:lol: It’s funny ’cause it’s true.

Comment by Anonymous
2010-09-30 14:10:45

edahstip….lighten up…. :D

Comment by Nicole
2010-09-30 20:32:29

edahstip – get over yourself! Check out this link to learn the signs that you are overly attached to your opinion!
Get a life buddy! :boogie:

Comment by Jared
2010-10-04 21:56:30

I’m curious as to the nature of denim back then. Wasn’t indigo one of the more expensive and hard to use dyes of the time? which is why blue and specifically purple are associated with the colors of royalty… because of their rarity and cost?

that seems to go against the logic here of it being the poormans/workmans material. why blue? why not something cheaper?

Comment by livius drusus
2010-10-04 22:34:06

Indigo (the dye derived from the Indian plant Indigofera tinctori) was prohibitively expensive for most people only until the 15th century. Once de Gama opened a direct trade route with India, the price dropped. New World colonies also began to grow the plant, so the dye became far more accessible via Spain and England.

However, I suspect the indigo used to dye early denim in France and Italy was derived from the local woad plant (Isatis tinctoria) which was plentiful on the continent. The blue dye extracted from the woad plant is also called indigo and is in fact chemically identical to that produced from “true indigo”. It’s just not as highly concentrated and thus not as intense a color.

Comment by Jared
2010-10-05 00:35:23

Ok. after some searching I thought maybe woad was the actual culprit as well, yet the article that Luke linked to claims the indigo to be the same indigo as used today…

It seems the most likely explanation is that drop in price in the 1600’s which i didn’t know/overlooked.

Thanks though, I found this article fascinating.

Comment by livius drusus
2010-10-05 01:50:29

That was sloppy writing, I’m afraid. The indigo paint the Master of Blue Jeans used was chemically identical to the dye used in jeans today, but nowadays that dye is synthesized, not derived from either the true indigo or the woad plant.

Thank you kindly for being fascinated. :thanks:

Comment by arpit
2010-10-25 00:34:32

so cool huh
not this i m cool :

Comment by marijke
2013-06-29 10:03:48

First dear readers excuse my poor english. it is not my native tongue.

Nobody refers to the cotton made denim in those days.
Denim woven around the 1650 was made of silk and wool in the first place and much later with cotton.
If cotton cloth was woven in the 17 century, the warp was mostly linnen or flax en the shooting cotton.
Only from 1773 the warp and shooting was of cotton only. Remember that spinning cotton was done with only 1 spindle, meaning it takes a lot of time, efford and money to spin cotton. Only just in 1767, the spinning-jenny made it possible to spin with 8 spindles at the same time.
Besides from 1781 on, the import of cotton became more and more important and more profitable.

besides dyeing of indigo was very expensive. natural dyed indigo clothing today are still expensive. The indigo dyeprocess is a complicated one and for long time the recipies were very secret and protected by the guilds and societies. Remember, indigo dyes cloting was not common among commen people for a very long time because in Europe they made use of Isitas Tinctoria which produces less indigo pigment then that of the Indigofera Tinctoria. German traders of woad pigment were incredible rich. Indigo was extreme expensive.

I dont believe the painting are original from the 1650ties or later. As an expert on textiles and indigodyer I know what it takes to weave, spin and dye with natural pigments.
I strongly believe this is a hoax!

Comment by marijke
2013-06-29 10:05:51

I forgot to mention that denim is woven in a special way.It is called twistweaving. twist weavings uses more threads and takes more time.
So in the first place if ever denim was woven it had to be more expensive then normal wooven cloths.

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