Oil on canvas, 59 x 45 In.
Provenance: New York, Christie's sale, 23 January 2004, lot 6.
This descriptive image of a barber's shop takes its place within the trend for realism that swept through Lombardy with the work of artists such as Pietro Bellotti (1625-1700) and Giacomo Ceruti (1698-1767), not to mention foreigners like the Austrian painter Cipper, called Todeschini (1664-1736) or the German Eberhart Keilhau, called Monsù Bernardo (1624-1687). Our picture can be attributed to one of these Northerners active in the Lombard region, a painter known by the conventional name Maestro della tela jeans ("Master of the jeans material"), and was presented as such by Gerlinde Gruber at a symposium held in Ljubljana in late 2005. 1 Still shrouded in mys-tery, this master emerged only recently as the author of A Mother Begging with Her Two Children (now in Milan, Koelliker collection) when the painting was presented in the exhibition on genre scenes held in Brescia in 1998-1999.2 The Koelliker canvas shows a mother wearing a skirt made of thick royal blue material, the coarsely woven "toile de Gênes" that was to have a enduring legacy as forerunner of modem blue jeans. This peculiarity provided this still anonymous master with his name.3 In both compositions, he has chosen to present three figures in a pyramidal arrangement that stands out clearly against the dark brown background. The scène in our painting is presented in a manner both touching and harshly truthful, with an old woman busy shaving the beard of a man, no longer young himself Her sole assistant is a young boy, who approaches her holding a deep, chipped bowl. A small stool, casually covered with a white cloth, serves as a surface for a partly toothless comb and a pair of scissors, while a hat is barely visible on the floor beside it; each object is treated in isolation. The silent gazes and sombre expressions are loaded with sadness and convey as much about the destitute condition of the sitters as the ragged material and threadbare clothes dwelt upon by the painter. The details of the old woman's eyeglasses, her turbaned head and swollen hands ail reflect a direct capturing of reality.
Gerlinde Gruber, who dates our painting to the last quarter of the seventeenth century, has assembled two other works around the canvas in the Koelliker collection, each displaying the influence of Michael Sweerts (1618-1664), a Flemish painter whose career developed in Rome amid the Bamboccianti.4 Sweerts' influence on our painter lies not in the fine painting manner of the Flemish tradition but rather in the use of muted colours, juxtaposed in subtle harmonies of browns, greys, and the cool blue of the man's stocking, which directly evokes the "tela jeans" of the painter's nickname. There is nothing in this depiction of society that contains anecdote or fantasy: on the contrary, it speaks to us through cold, uncompromising realism.
1- Gerlinde Gruber, "Un altro pittore della Realtà", symposium paper, Flemish and Dutch painters in Central Europe and northern Italy in the late 17th century. Almanach and the Painting of the Second Half of the 17th Century in Carniola, Ljubljana, 21 October 2005 (to be published in detail in the forthcoming number of the journal Nuovi Studi).
2- Gerlinde Gruber, in Da Caravaggio a Ceruti. La scena di genere e l'immagine dei pitocchi nella pittura italiana, ed. Francesco Porzio, exh. cat, Brescia, Museo di Santa Giulia, 28 November 1998-28 February 1999, p. 425, No 90, illus. p. 219.
3- Francesco Frangi, "Dai pitocchi al 'buon villan'. Metamorfosi della pittura di genere a Milano negli anni di Parini", in l'amabil rito. Società e cultura nella Milano di Parini, symposium papers, Milan, 1999, ed. G. Barbarisi, C. Capra, F. Degrada, F. Mazzocca, Bologna, 2000, 11, pp. 1145-1162.
4- Gerlinde Gruber, "Maestro della tela jeans", in Dipinti lombardi dei Seicento. Collezione Koelliker, ed. Francesco Frangi, Alessandro Morandotti, Turin, 2004, pp. 156-161, with black and white illustrations of A Mother Sewing with Her Two Children (Milan, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio delle Province Lombarde) and A Little Beggar Boy with a Piece of Bread (private collection).