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.