The history of denim appears to begin in 1873 when Levi Strauss & Co. sold its first dungarees during the California gold rush. The Marlboro man, cowboys and America are the images associated with this fabric, but a small collection of paintings entitled “The Master of the Blue Jeans” will change this perception.
Debuting at the Galerie Canesso in Paris during Fashion Week last fall, this group of seven oil paintings was once attributed to several artists, but are now believed to be from one hand. The unidentified painter depicts scenes of the lower end of the Italian working class, modest in origin, fully aware of their condition and busy with the most mundane of tasks.
Wearing jackets, aprons and dresses from what was then a Genoese twill cotton, a more or less intense blue cloth known to us today as jeans. Originally from Genoa, Italy hence the word jeans, or from weavers in Nimes, France the fabric is referenced as de Nimes, forerunner of denim. This exhibition illustrates the durability of the fabric as people wore their clothes until they disintegrated – and that denim was a part of history long before it came to America in the 18th century.
The focus is on the figures in the paintings much more than the settings. The spectacle of wretched condition with an elevated point of view, the small group of works assembled under the anachronistic name bears witness to the painters’ activities in Lombardy. While these works are not great in comparison with other celebrated pieces of the time, his painting is solemn and silent depicting his subjects in a manner to convey their lives over the course of a forgotten history.