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OLD MASTER IN DENIM

by N.F. Karlins
 
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A street urchin, wearing an oversized brown hat and grasping a hunk of bread, looks out at the viewer like he’s about to cry. The boy wears a tattered blue jacket that seems to be made of denim.

In another picture, a beggar woman stands with a crutch and a bowl, flanked by two children. She wears a long, torn denim skirt that might not be out of place on a hippie from the 1960s.

A third painting shows a woman mending. She too wears a torn garment, apparently an apron, that is made not only from denim, but the light-blue faded kind.

These and other paintings, ten works in all, are now attributed to the mysterious Master of the Blue Jeans, a newly discovered painter who is thought to have been active in 17th-century Italy. Formerly given to other artists, including Michael Sweerts, Diego Velásquez and Georges de Latour, the group of works were gathered together and reattributed by Gerlinde Gruber, curator at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The pictures were first shown at Galerie Canesso in Paris, and are now on view at Didier Aaron, Inc., in Manhattan.

But blue denim -- is that not a particularly modern U.S. invention, by Levi Strauss perhaps, out in California during the Gold Rush? According to Gruber, the blue cloth with a white-thread weave that we know as denim is actually a Genoese fabric -- thus the name "genes," or "jeans" -- that has a long history in Europe, stretching back to blue serge used in the 1300s.

All the works in the show -- seven of the ten -- are for sale, with prices ranging from $200,000 to $1,200,000. At this writing, two of the seven have already been sold and two more are on reserve. 

Little may be known about the artist, but one thing is certain: the works look terrific together.

Like Caravaggesque genre scenes, the oils depict poor people, and all of the paintings include at least one child. The artist’s tenebrist palette ranges from black and white and browns to gold, reds and oranges for flesh tones, and snatches of blue, green, and orange-red, mostly in the clothing. The backgrounds are deep brown.

Great attention paid to clothing and pieces of cloth, which are often tattered, pressed, wrinkled, stitched in broad strokes, soiled, rolled or pleated. And every painting has crockery or food in it, even The Barber Shop, which includes a child holding a majolica shaving bowl.

Anatomy and perspective is not always so masterful, though details are lovingly painted. As viewers, we know exactly what The Frugal Meal consists of, from the tiny birds in a bowl to the bread, rice soup, and an empanada, possibly filled with beets, held by the old woman.

Another theme that runs through the works is that of sight. The title figure in Woman Spinning appears blind in one eye, which is closed, while in A Frugal Meal with Two Children one child feeds another with closed eyes, who tilts her head back as if she may be sightless as well. In The Barber’s Shop, the barber wears glasses.

The "Master of the Blue Jeans" has links to Dutch (and even some French and Spanish) painters in subject matter, and to Caravaggio and his followers in his interest in the dramatic play of lights and darks. The works seem to have turned up originally in Lombardy, but it’s anybody’s guess who the "Master of the Blue Jeans" really is and where he or she is from. What’s yours?

"The Master of the Blue Jeans," Jan. 20-Feb. 18, 2011, at Didier Aaron, Inc., New York, 32 East 67th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.


N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.



 



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