The Blue Boy
|The Blue Boy|
|Medium||oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||177.8 cm × 112.1 cm (70.0 in × 44.1 in)|
|Location||Henry E. Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California|
One of Gainsborough's most famous works, The Blue Boy is thought to be a portrait of Jonathan Buttle (1752–1805), the son of a wealthy hardware merchant, although this has never been proven. It is a historical costume study as well as a portrait; the painting of the youth in his seventeenth-century apparel is regarded as Gainsborough's homage to Anthony van Dyck and is very similar to Van Dyck's portraits of Charles II as a boy.
Gainsborough had already drawn something on the canvas before beginning The Blue Boy, which he painted over. The painting is about life-size, measuring 48 inches (1,200 mm) wide by 70 inches (1,800 mm) tall. Gainsborough painted the portrait in response to the advice of his rival Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had written:
It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colours; and for this purpose, a small proportion of cold colour will be sufficient. Let this conduct be reversed; let the light be cold, and the surrounding colour warm, as we often see in the works of the Roman and Florentine painters, and it will be out of the power of art, even in the hands of Rubens and Titian, to make a picture splendid and harmonious.
The painting was in Buttle's possession until he filed for bankruptcy in 1796. It was first bought 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 having been 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, it was then sold to the American railway pioneer Henry Edwards Huntington for $728,800 (£182,200), according to Duveen's bill, a then-record price for any painting. According to a mention in The New York Times dated 11 November 1921, the purchase price was $640,000, which would be $9.29 million in 2020.
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 will be on show at the National Gallery, London, on January 25 2022, exactly a century to the day since it left the UK. It will remain in the National Gallery for five months before returning to the US permanently.
In popular culture
The painting is seen hanging in Vincent Ludwig's office in the film The Naked Gun.
In the movie Ghostbusters 2 (1989), the character Janosz Poha contrasts a large portrait of the fictional 16th-century sorcerer Vigo the Carpathian with Gainsborough's Blue Boy.
A split-second image in Teacher's Pet shows a parody of the painting featuring Leonard.
Over the credits of Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, a parody of the painting featuring Gus dressed in this outfit is shown.
It appears as an in-game item in the computer game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
British comedian Victoria Wood's series As Seen on TV features a regular sketch called Acorn Antiques, a pastiche of a soap opera set in an antiques shop. In one episode, a customer asks for "Gainsborough's Blue Boy in mauve", used to show that the antiques business is not being taken seriously by the programme.
The Blue Boy inspired pop artist Robert Rauschenberg to pursue a painting career. It is often paired with a painting by Thomas Lawrence called Pinkie that sits opposite to it at the Huntington Library.
- Children's Encyclopædia Britannica. 8. London. 1969. p. 12; see plate.CS1 maint: postscript (link)
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- "Sharen Davis Costume Interview: Django Unchained". Clothes on Film. 1 January 2013. Retrieved 11 January 2021.
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- Conisbee, Philip (2003). "The Ones That Got Away". In Verdi, Richard (ed.). Saved! 100 Years of the National Art Collection Fund. London: Scala.
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- Thicknesse, Philip (1790). Life of Sir Thomas Gainsborough.
- Tyler, David (2004). "Jonathan Buttall". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Media related to The Blue Boy at Wikimedia Commons