Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” was once the world’s most famous painting – here are 3 surprising facts about it

One hundred years ago Thomas Gainsborough The blue boy (1770) became the most expensive painting in the world when American collectors Henry and Arabella Huntington purchased the masterpiece for the then staggering sum of $ 728,000.

With the purchase, the painting, which Gainsborough had first exhibited under the name Portrait of a young gentlemen– reached a new peak of fame on both sides of the Atlantic. Before leaving London for his new California home, Gainsborough’s virtuoso portrayal of a teenager, clad in a shimmering blue satin costume, was on display for three weeks at the National Gallery in a sort of patriotic farewell.

Kehinde Wiley, A portrait of a young gentleman (2021). Courtesy of the Huntington Library.

In the century since this record-breaking purchase, The blue boy (a nickname he earned in 1798) has seen endless emulation, with references cropping up in everything from a Marlene Dietrich photoshoot in 1927 to a costme reference in the Quentin Tarantino film. Django unchained. Earlier this year, Kehinde Wiley, who took art classes at the Huntington Library as a child, unveiled his A portrait of a young gentleman, a response to the iconic Gainsborough painting commissioned to hang opposite Gainsborough in the library. Wiley’s vision of a teenager in sneakers and shorts amid swirls of blue plants is both an ode and a critique of his 18th-century counterpart.

Today in January, for the first time since leaving the UK a century ago, The blue boy will come back to The National Gallery in London for a historic exhibition who will present the painting alongside works by Anthony Van Dyck and other artists from whom Gainsborough was inspired.

Ahead of this historic exhibition, we decided to take a closer look at the Gainsborough exhibition Blue boy and found three fascinating facts that just might change the way you see it.

Gainsborough painted it to be “cool”

Thomas Gainsborough, Blue Boy (1770).  Courtesy of the Huntington Library.

Thomas Gainsborough, Blue boy (1770). Courtesy of the Huntington Library.

While this shimmering blue suit was certainly the most beloved aspect of Gainsborough’s portrait, it was also what made it so unconventional in its day. Gainsborough made his debut The blue boy at the Royal Academy in 1770 at a time when its founder, Joshua Reynolds, was taking clues from the great Roman and Florentine artists who emphasized the warm tones of red. Gainsborough, on the other hand, took a literally cooler approach to painting, emphasizing blues and greens in his portraits.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait (circa 1747-1749).  Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

that of Sir Joshua Reynolds Self-portrait (circa 1747-1749) illustrates his approach to cold tones as accents used sparingly. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

A particularly indefatigable rumor has it that Gainsborough painted The blue boy directly refute Reynolds “Eighth Speech,” in which the academician said blue tones were better as accent colors.

“It is necessary, in my opinion, to be absolutely observed, that the masses of light in a painting are always of a warm and soft color, yellow, red or yellowish-white, and that the blue, the gray or the green colors must be almost entirely excluded from these masses and used only to support or highlight these warm colors, ”Reynolds wrote.

While this anecdote certainly crystallizes two diametrically opposed artistic perspectives, it ignores the fact that Reynolds only presented these views to the Academy in 1778, some eight years after Gainsborough completed his masterpiece.

Nevertheless, The blue boy embodies Gainsborough’s very original and modern approach to portraiture – and one that was at odds with Reynolds. Blue, when used dominantly in any painting up to this point, had been relegated almost entirely to canvas backgrounds (think heavenly blues of the heavens). Here, however, Gainsborough puts it front and center. The contemporaneity of Gainsborough’s approach is still only underlined by its use of Prussian blue, the first artificially manufactured color, which was first produced in 1704.

The painting captures an 18th-century trend for old-fashioned disguises

Anthony Van Dyck, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628-87), and Lord Francis Villiers (1629-48) (listed 1635).  Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

Anthony Van Dyck, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628-87) and Lord Francis Villiers (1629-48) (inscribed in 1635). Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

Costume historians would like to point out that Blue Boy Famous ensemble did not conform to the fashion of the 1770s, but was more suited to the styles of 130 years earlier, the 1640s. The blue boy appears to be wearing clothes straight out of a portrait of Gainsborough’s hero, Anthony Van Dyck, and indeed many have interpreted the painting as Gainsborough’s homage to Van Dyck, particularly his shimmering double portrayal of the young Duke George Villiers and Lord Francis Villiers.

Van Dyck’s portrait was famous in its day for its brilliance and sensitivity, and the painting was known to have had a great influence on a number of 18th century artists, including Gainsborough. Van Dyck’s influence on Blue boy not only appears in the posture of the young subject, but also in the bright costume.

Thomas Gainsborough, Edward Richard Gardiner (circa 1760-1768).  Courtesy of Tate.

Thomas Gainsborough, Edouard Richard Gardiner (around 1760-1768). Courtesy of Tate.

While it may seem odd that Gainsborough, who was against nostalgic classicism, to paint his subject in anachronistic clothes, it was actually very contemporary. Dressing in old-fashioned masquerade costumes for portraits was a popular trend in 1770s England (think of it as a precursor to those kitsch “Old West” saloon photographs).

Here the Blue boy, who many believe to be Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy hardware merchant and acquaintance of the artist, is depicted as an aristocrat dressed in 17th-century cavalier attire with white stockings and blue satin panties with sumptuous golden embroidery.

Although the set gained iconic status in his painting, Gainsborough, in fact, used the exact same costume in several other portraits, including those of his two nephews Edward Richard Gardiner and Gainsborough Dupont (some believe the model Dupont is also for this portrait). Gardiner’s portrait, which Gainsborough completed in 1768, is considered by historians to be the artist’s “trial of color” before embarking on his Blue boy.

A dog is disguised under the surface of the painting

Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy (ca. 1770) shown in normal light photography (left), digital x-ray (center, including a dog previously revealed in a 1994 x-ray), and infrared reflectography (right). The Huntington Library, the art collections and the botanical gardens.

Thomas Gainsborough, The blue boy (ca. 1770) shown in normal light photograph (left), digital x-ray (center, including a dog previously revealed in a 1994 x-ray) and infrared reflectography (right). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Jardins.

Some 250 years after its creation, the luminous bursts and hues of The blue boy had faded and faded. In an effort to restore the paintwork to its azure allure (as well as stabilize it against further degradation), the Huntington recently completed its Project Blue Boy, an 18-month restoration project led by curator Christina O’Connell and the curator Melinda McCurdy. The set, and incredibly well documented, the restoration has revealed a fascinating insight into the Gainsborough process.

Most telling (at least for dog lovers) were the x-rays showing that Gainsborough had in fact included a fluffy white puppy to the boy’s left. The artist then hid and replaced the dog with a pile of stones. (Gainsborough also apparently painted over the sketch of an older man in the portrait). While a 1994 x-ray first revealed the dog behind the painting, new infrared reflectography images have shed new light on how Gainsborough covered the dog.

“We can see how he very intentionally added layers on top to hide it in the landscape. He turned the dog’s paws into rocks, ”O’Connell told the Los Angeles Times. Historians believe it could have been an English water spaniel.

Anthony Van Dyck, The five eldest children of Charles I (Signed and dated 1637).  Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

Anthony Van Dyck, The five eldest children of Charles I (Signed and dated 1637). Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

Why get rid of man’s best friend? While no one is sure, Gainsborough may have had some doubts about the dog’s aesthetic contributions to the portrait. In a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Curator Shelley Bennett speculated on the decision: “It works compositional. It was probably just the concept, ”she said. “I think the dog was so cute, so adorable – he’s a doggie – that he undermined the aristocratic vanities of the painting. Or maybe Gainsborough thought all those fluff was fighting with the boy’s hat.

Perhaps Gainsborough felt he was looking a bit too closely at Van Dyck, whose portraits of royal children so often included their canine companions – or maybe his just fell short.

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