A Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie (late 17th Century). Oil on canvas. By 'Master of the Blue Jeans.'
An artist friend of mine just sent me a link to a remarkable exhibition at the Galerie Canesso in Paris, which ran earlier this year. This was an exhibit of paintings done by an unnamed painter who focussed on the poor, and inadvertently recorded the use of denim to clothe the destitute in the seventeenth century. As my friend put it: "Art historians have rediscovered a 17th c. painter who is known as the Master of the Jean, as in blue jeans! There are only 10 paintings attributed to him and all of his sitters are wearing jean jackets and jean skirts. Apparently denim was a form of fabric from (de) Nîmes in France - cotton dyed indigo with a white under warp. Used by the wealthy for bed curtains but by the poor for clothing. Look ... to see an example of his work; a poor little street urchin in a denim jacket. It stimulates a momentary collapse of temporal perception." The gallery's site has a catalogue by Art Historian Véronique Damian (links here and here).
Woman Begging with Two Children (late 17th Century). Oil on canvas. By 'Master of the Blue Jeans.'
The word 'denim' comes from the expression 'de Nîmes,' meaning 'of, or from, Nîmes.' It is a type of serge fabric. Wiki: "The word 'jeans' comes from the French phrase bleu de Gênes, literally the blue of Genoa." Denim trousers were made for the Genoese navy in the nineteenth century.
Woman Sewing with Two Children (late 17th Century). Oil on canvas. By 'Master of the Blue Jeans.'
The reason we associate cotton denim jeans so fixedly with American culture is because Levi Stauss famously mass produced blue jeans in California in the 1850s (homepage here). Since articles of denim clothing were worn in Europe only by the poorest people, there are almost no records of its use until it was produced for general consumption. And there are almost no European paintings of people wearing jean cloth for the same reason. In the United States, the history of denim before Stauss got to it is also less illustrious.
Denim had been made in America since the late eighteenth century; it was worn and produced by slaves in the South. This is why the old Blues song, The House of the Rising Sun, has such a poignant and haunting reference to the popularity of blue jeans in the 1950s and 1960s (although the song is older than that): "Now, my mother is a tailor. She sews those new blue jeans." That implies: slavery had ended, but a lot of the work remained the same, even one hundred years later; those 'new' blue jeans weren't new to the people making them. The Animals changed the lyrics slightly for their version in 1964, which obscured the meaning of the lyric. (For my money, the best recorded version of the song is still Nina Simone's slow version from her performance at the Village Gate in 1961.) Poverty and degradation had real histories, before the push to glorify and mimic them in the name of politically 'reclaiming' them in the 1960s. Now that blue jeans are popularized and democratized, a cloth that for two hundred years represented destitution has become a designer material for socially-conscious rock stars and celebutantes. The present image of denim has been so deconstructed and reconstructed that when we see the real history of this fabric, we can barely believe it wasn't photoshopped. (~Thanks to C.)