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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

The Blue Boy

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, 1770, Huntington Library, San Marino, California

The Blue boy is probably the most iconic English art work, famous around the World and inspirational source for many artists and films directors till nowadays.

The Blue Boy was painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1770 and presented in the same year to the Royal Academy of Arts in Burlington House, in the centre of London.

Gainsborough was one of the most famous painters of the 18th century, acclaimed portraitist of aristocrats and celebrities, he was also royal portraitist in 1774, despite he declared more than once his love and interest for the landscape art, at the period less lucrative art. He was known for the speed of his works and for the ability to catch the feature of the sitter without adding any classicism mannerism, really fashionable at that period, but depicting a vivid and realistic portrait of the sitter that gave him his great fame.

He was admired for his experimental technique especially for his feathery strokes, for his agility in the composition and in the touch, for the brilliant execution, for his artistic ability and for the light and shining colours, subtle and depth.

At the period just another painter was competed with him for the fame: Joshua Reynolds.

Both of them signed in 1768 for the formation of the Royal Academy of Arts in which Reynolds became the president. Reynolds, the most prominent portrait painter in England at the time, was a different painter from Gainsborough. He included in his works references to classical or Renaissance art admired in his Ground Tour in Italy, giving to his portraits that eternal, ageless and classical style in which the sitter is portraited as a god or goddess that pose as a sculpture.

Gainsborough and Reynolds had a rivalry specially fought in the Summer Exhibition in The Royal Academy, where artists still presenting nowadays their new works to visitors and critics. In the Summer Exhibition Gainsborough was doing very well in the reviews of the Academy and had more success between the public and the newspapers. They rivalry got worse as Gainsborough was chosen as a royal painter.

Reynolds used his position as president of the Royal Academy to attack the style of his rival in his Discourses on Arts.

The Discourses were composed as lectures to the students at the Royal Academy. In one of them Reynolds was debating the use of colours, he explained that the most important colours in a painting are the warm colours as yellow, red or white but blue, grey and green have to be used as a support of the other colours and in few quantities in the background.

This assertation was the motivation for Gainsborough to do the right opposite and used the blue colour as the centre colour in his paintings.

The blue colour was always a complex colour to use. It was barely used in the classical period; it became essential in the Medieval and Renaissance periods when the Lapis lazuli were discovered in Afghanistan and traded by the Venetians. For its high prices, the blue colour was used in the decoration of the illuminated manuscripts and in the paintings used in the cape of the Virgin Mary. The Church imposed strict rules in the use of the blue colour and decided as well the price for it.

A revolution became with the Venetians painters known for their ability to use the colours. Among them the more revolutionary was Titian, who used the blue colour for portraits as A Man with a Quilted Sleeve and in the mythological paintings as Bacchus and Ariadne.

The Blue Boy by Gainsborough is a masterful full-length portrait of a young boy dressed in a blue satin doublet, cape, and breeches, holding a beplumed wide-brimmed hat.

The elegant dress of the boy is a masquerade a costume of the 17th century really in fashion in the 18th century and a tribute to his favourite painter: Van Dyck.

The boy seems determined and confident in his stance that reminded some of the portraits of Van Dyck as George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and His Brother Lord Francis Villiers and The Five Eldest Children of Charles I.

Anthony van Dyck, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and His Brother Lord Francis Villiers, 1635

Anthony Van Dyck, The Five Eldest Children of Charles I, 1637

Gainsborough in The Blue Boy didn’t follow the rules of Reynolds about the colour and used the light blue for the subject and the warm colours for the landscape and the sky creating this romantic atmosphere.

Beautiful are the small and precise brush strokes in the face of the boy and the free and choppy strokes of the landscapes that are giving dynamism to the composition.

The elegant and grandeur portrait doesn’t depict an aristocratic boy but Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy hardware merchant neighbour of Gainsborough. Some art historians in the last years saw in the portrait Dupont Gainsborough, nephew and pupil of the artist who wore the same blue costume in some portraits.

Thomas Gainsborough, Dupont, Gainsborough, ca1773, Waddesdon Manor

The painting was in Jonathan Buttle's possession until he filed for bankruptcy in 1796. It was bought first by the politician John Nesbitt and then, in 1802, by the portrait painter John Hoppner. In about 1809, The Blue Boy entered the collection of the Earl Grosvenor and remained with his descendants until its sale by the second Duke of Westminster to the dealer Joseph Duveen in 1921. By then, it had become a great popular favourite in print reproductions, after being exhibited to the public in various exhibitions at the British Institution, Royal Academy, and elsewhere.

In a move that caused a public outcry in Britain The Blue boy denominated by the New York Time as as “the world’s most beautiful picture”, it was sold in 1921 to the American railway pioneer Henry Edwards Huntington for the record price of $640,000, which would be $9.17 million in 2019.

Before its departure to California in 1922, The Blue Boy was briefly put on display at the National Gallery where it was seen by 90,000 people. The Gallery's director Charles Holmes was moved to scrawl farewell words on the back of the painting: "Au Revoir, C.H.".

The blue boy in the National Gallery 1922

The painting was transferred to San Marino Pasadena in California in the Huntington Library where it was always exhibited to the public till last yea,r when the painting, to celebrate its 250 years, was restored by a project called Project Blue Boy, realized almost completely under the eyes of the visitors.

The blue Boy, X-RAY.

From X-rays of “Blue Boy” reveal the unfinished portrait of a man Gainsborough painted before re-printing the canvas and in the bottom a dog that he transformed in a pile of rocks on the right side closed to the boy.

This painting became an icon in the Anglo-American history and it was the inspiration for film directors as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau who made his directorial debut with Der Knabe in Blau, or The Boy in Blue.

In the 2012 Quentin Tarantino western Django Unchained, the titular anti-hero doles out bloody vengeance draped in a bright blue suit that looks eerily similar to the one in Gainsborough's famous work.

The young American Robert Rauschenberg, looking at this painting, was moved toward painting.

The Blue Boys this year was exhibited again in its original place with its mate Pinkie, a young girl dressed in pink, by Thomas Lawrence in the Huntington Library in California.

Thomas Gainsborough, The blue Boy 1770, and Thomas Lawrence, Pinkie, 1794, Huntington Library.

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