A hundred years since it was last displayed in the United Kingdom, Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy has returned to the National Gallery in London. “It has never been lent since its departure from the U.K.—until now,” the institution said in a statement, adding that the portrait, “is unlikely to ever be lent again.”
The famed 1770 portrait of an English child in a resplendent blue satin doublet and breeches has long been the star attraction of the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. Scaled to life-size, the boy is positioned like a monarch and painted with a palette that glows. Its prominence in art history is hardly overstated: it was the most expense painting in the world when it sold to American railroad magnate Henry Huntington in 1921, who soon had it shipped to his Southern California estate. When it went on display at the National Gallery for three weeks following the sale, the press called it “the world’s most beautiful picture.” The painting has even been cited by artist Robert Rauschenberg as a major influence on his practice.
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The child’s likeness has been endlessly emulated; characters from Shirley Temple to the eponymous avenger of Django Unchained have been costumed in looks inspired by the shimmering suit. Last year at the Huntington, Kehinde Wiley debuted his homage to Blue Boy, featuring a Black teenager amid a brilliant botanical background. Where blue boy brandishes an extravagant plumed hat, Wiley’s subject holds a simple black cap.
At the National Gallery, Blue Boy is paired with works by Anthony Van Dyck, whose preference for grand, full-length portraiture was an immense influence on the British painter. To mark Blue Boy’s reunion with the institution, below follows a dive into the painting’s journey.
The London Debut
Originally titled A Portrait of a Young Gentleman, Gainsborough unveiled the work at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 1770. The brilliant blue suit immediately caused a stir, given the period’s preference for warm, red tones in the style of Florentine artists. Gainsborough’s painting foregrounded blue—in particular, Prussian blue—and green for a cool wash. According to one anecdote, painter Joshua Reynolds, a founder of the Royal Academy and its first president, had said blue tones were better suited as accent colors, prompting Gainsborough to paint The Blue Boy. The dispute was later revealed to be fiction concocted by the press, but Gainsborough’s bold composition undeniably signaled a new direction for portraiture in the country. By 1798, the public had dubbed it “Blue Boy.”
But who sat for the portrait? Many historians posit the subject is Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy merchant and acquaintance of the artist. Others believe there was no sitter: the painting was intended as a character study of the aristocratic type who cosplayed for kitschy masquerade balls. It may also have been a homage to Gainsborough’s idol, Anthony Van Dyck. The boy’s ensemble was outdated by 1770, but in line with the fashions in Van Dyck’s lifetime, some 130 years earlier. It even recalls the luminous outfits worn in one of the Flemish painter’s most influential pieces, the double-portrait of the duke George Villiers and Lord Francis Villiers.
The costume first appeared in several earlier portraits by Gainsborough, including two portraits of his nephews, Edward Richard Gardiner and Gainsborough Dupont. A more recent theory is that Dupont, who also worked as Gainsborough’s studio assistant, modeled for the painting.
A National Goodbye
Henry Huntington acquired The Blue Boy from the Duke of Westminster for $728,000 (or over $10 million in today’s money). Though trophy pieces sell for many more millions these days, that sum was the highest price ever paid for a painting at the time. The sale was arranged by legendary art dealer Joseph Duveen, known for giving the American nouveau riche a taste for European masterpieces. (He famously said, “Europe has a great deal of art, and America has a great deal of money.”) The painting wasn’t in great shape: thick layers of varnish had been applied over time, trapping dirt and muddying the canvas. According to Duveen, the painting was “gray with filth.” The restoration took only five days; reintroduced with the resplendent painting, England lamented the sale as a national tragedy. Duveen had even been requested for an audience with King George V, but the king couldn’t stop the painting’s flight “from gilded galleries in Park Lane to the Wild West across the winter sea,” to quote Cole Porter’s song The Blue Boy Blues.
Before its departure to America, the painting was exhibited in the National Gallery for three weeks. The farewell tour attracted some 90,000 visitors. The museum’s then-director, Sir Charles Holmes, wrote on the back of the canvas: “au revoir.”
A Thorough Cleaning
By 2015, the lustrous hues of The Blue Boy had again faded, and paint was flaking in some spots. It had been restored six times in the last century, but previous efforts had been done quickly to reduce its time away from the public. To restore the painting to its original brilliance, as well as guard it against future degradation, the Huntington launched a two-year conservation project led by Christina O’Connell, the museum’s senior paintings conservator. Much of the work was done in the public’s view as part of a year-long exhibition called “Project Blue Boy.” The technical analysis of the painting revealed how Gainsborough covered up a small image of a white dog, first detected by an X-ray of the canvas in 1994. Then layer by layer, he turned the pooch into a pile of rocks. But why even cover it up?
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times following its initial discovery, curator Shelley Bennett said, “I think the dog was so cute, so adorable—it’s a pooch—that it undercut the aristocratic conceits of the painting. Or maybe Gainsborough thought all that fluff fought with the boy’s hat.”