“The Master of the Blue Jeans” at Didier Aaron: a conversation with Alan Salz

This week marks the final days of what was in  our eyes, the highlight of Old Masters week in the city in late January-a small, yet remarkable group of pictures on view at Didier Aaron, attributed to the hand of an anonymous late-17th century Italian painter known as “The Master of the Blue Jeans.”

In lieu of some of the art from the time, ranging from  Velazquez’s bodegón series,  to the work of the Frenchman George de la Tour, and some of the lesser known Bamboccianti from Italy and Northern Europe , this small corpus adds a striking new wrinkle of painterly development to the story of the late  Baroque.

As the predeliction towards Tenebrism and low-life scenes had taken hold of Western Europe in the wake of the revolutionary Caravaggio, this corpus is unique in its emotional resonance. While we do not know much about the life of the Master of the Blue Jeans yet, we can see that that this subject matter was intensely personal to him, as these paintings provide a moving and empathetic eye to the plight of the poverty stricken.  On the lighter side of things, it’s also hard not to cherish this man’s curious namesake, which as discussed in the catalogue, may have provided a historical argument to the origins of such a staple article of modern clothing, which had long been presumed to be born in the textile mills of Amoskeag, New Hampshire, in 1831.

OMNP sat down with Didier Aaron’s director, Alan Salz, for a loosely documented conversation to learn more:

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These pictures are all painted quite well, how is it that this guy managed to stay unrecognized all these years?

On one hand, you have advancements in connoisseurship, which link together works with vague attributions that had once been attached to more well-known artists and their studios, or simply labeled as the style or school of a particular period. On the other, this process can be subject to searching for a needle in the haystack, especially if works are in private collections. If there’s a Master of a Blue Jeans work that happens to be out in some country house in Milan, it can really be by chance that an owner would be notified that there’s a search out for such works, maybe by reading about it in the Burlington Magazine or hearing about it through their network.

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One would think that if the master was painting low-life scenes (not exactly the most marketable,) he would have commissions coming from elsewhere. Do you think these paintings were done for anyone in particular?

One of the intriguing things about this group of works is how similar they are in compositional structure, each displaying three characters, with one looking out at the viewer. Such a specific configuration would suggest that these were a part of a series of works, however it’s tough to say if they were for an individual or a number of patrons. Time will tell.

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What was the key painting that discerned the Master’s style and set off the search for more works like it?

“Woman Begging with Two Children” (see image #3) which lends itself as to why this artist was only  recently discovered. This painting was housed in the Villa Airoldi in Albiate (a suburb north of Milan), from about 1850 all the way up until 2002, when it was bought by the noted collector Luigi Koelliker. Four years previously, the painting was reidentified in a survey of Italian Baroque painting, entitled “Da Caravaggio a Ceruti” at the Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia, eventually being connected to “Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie” (image #2) which both share the subject of the innocent yet street-smart child that can be identified with his tattered navy jean jacket and brown hat.

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What types of politics are at play when it comes to soliciting owners to let such works be reattributed? For example, the exhibition catalogue mentions that “The Barber’s Shop” (image #4) came from the esteemed Wildenstein gallery, which originally had it attributed as a Velazquez.  Wouldn’t there be resistance to seeing a picture’s value drop or is it more like a courtesy amongst dealers to honor such academic breakthroughs?

People are obviously resistant seeing pictures get demoted, but in the case of the Velazquez it had already been downgraded to an attribution as an anonymous work of the seventeenth-century Neapolitan School, according to the catalogue entry by  Christie’s in New York, for their sale of Old Masters on January 23rd, 2004.

Scholarship changes all the time, Look at the recent reattribution of Velazquez’s “Phillip IV” at the Met, or their acquisition of the Perino del Vaga’s at Sotheby’s this year (the painting’s attribution was the subject for debate). There are constantly disputes, in some cases you have owners holding on to works, waiting for the next generation of scholars to come along.

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That’s interesting to think of how paintings in the Old Masters field can experience a roller-coaster ride in terms of value, with attributions changing not once but several times. One wonders about how changes in taste can also be affected, in terms of how these works are presented. For example, this exhibition had the unique distinction of being linked with the fashion crowd, due to the title of its maker. While the reaction in NYC was reportedly subdued, there was a lively response to the show over in Paris..trumpeted by Marithe Francois-Girbaud’s foreword to the show in the exhibition catalog.

The history of denim being a long time subject of fascination to him, is this appeal to this type of audience an anomaly, or could more private Old Master shows be marketed around Contemporary themes today?

It’s wonderful to see Old Masters resonate on a more modern level and it’s important to preserve the integrity of the terms by which they are presented. There’s a beauty in seeing what these painters were illustrating hundreds of years ago and understanding them on a transcendent level.  At the same time, it’s also apt to see that not everything has to sing to us in a 21st century fashion. Some things just aren’t the same now as they were then, and you don’t want to look to these shows as being gimmicks.

‘The Master of the Blue Jeans,” on view until February 18th [Didier Aaron]

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