The Blue Boy has been using his defiant stare and unique fashion sense to transfix viewers for centuries. But even art fans may not know that the story of Thomas Gainsborough's most iconic work is nearly as rich as the fabric of his subject's blue britches.
The Blue Boy was a homage to Sir Anthony Van Dyck: In painting The Blue Boy at some point around 1770, Gainsborough borrowed more than the regal-yet-relaxed look that the 17th century Flemish painter achieved in his portraits. He also pulled his costume inspiration from Van Dyck's Portrait of Charles, Lord Strange.
The Blue Boy was no royal: Art historians debated the identity of this posh-looking lad for centuries. Today's scholars believe him to be Jonathan Buttall, the young son of an affluent hardware merchant who had befriended Gainsborough. The boy might be blue out of spite: Gainsborough had a heated rivalry with his portrait-painting peer Sir Joshua Reynolds. Some art historians have suggested that The Blue Boy was conceived as a glorious means of refuting Reynold's declarations on color.
Specifically, Reynolds believed:
"It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow color, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colors be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colors; and for this purpose, a small proportion of cold color will be sufficient."
It wasn't the first painting Gainsborough put on this canvas: In 1939, an X-ray was taken of the painting that revealed the canvas had once been an incomplete painting of an older man, before it was cut down and repainted with the boy. But that's not the only X-ray surprise-in 1995, it was discovered that Gainsborough had originally painted a dog to go alongside the boy. But it got covered up by a pile of rocks, possibly because, in the words of curator Shelley Bennett, "maybe Gainsborough thought all that fluff fought with the boy's hat."
The Blue Boy drew rave reviews: Gainsborough had high hopes for the piece's reception when it debuted in 1770 at the Royal Academy, a prestigious venue that had only opened a year before. He was not disappointed. The incredible play of color and thoughtful brush strokes of The Blue Boy made it an instantly adored hit. Gainsborough preferred to paint landscapes: Though he is remembered for portraits like The Blue Boy, Gainsborough famously declared (in the third person), "He painted portraits for money, and landscapes because he loved them."
The Blue Boy was a key inspiration to early film director F.W. Murnau: The German director is best known for his 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu, but in 1919, Murnau made his directorial debut with Der Knabe in Blau, or The Boy in Blue. Only a few frames of the film remain today, but among them is a shot of a boy who seems to have stepped straight out of Gainsborough's masterpiece.
The piece is quite large: The Blue Boy is essentially life-sized, measuring in 70.0 by 44.1 inches. The Blue Boy's model owned the piece for a bit: Although the Blue Boy himself owned the painting at one point, in 1796 a desperate Buttall declared bankruptcy and sold the unique portrait to politician John Nesbitt. By 1802, the work had been passed on to acclaimed portrait artist John Hoppner before being sold to the Earl Grosvenor in 1809. It remained with the Earl's family for more than a century. The painting's fame grew through reproductions: Exhibitions at the British Institution and the Royal Academy won the painting further critical acclaim, while prints of the piece made it popular with the masses. By the early 1920s, The Blue Boy was a gem in England's artistic crown.
Its sale was record-breaking and heartbreaking for England: Thanks to this growing esteem, The Blue Boy's 1921 sale to American railroad tycoon Henry Edwards Huntington caused a massive outcry among the English, who were horrified that The Blue Boy should leave his homeland. Though the exact sales figure is a matter of debate, Encyclopaedia Britannica pegs it at roughly $700,000 (or about $9.3 million today), which made it the second most expensive painting in the world, behind Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna and Child.
England grieved with one last display and a bit of vandalism: Before The Blue Boy departed for the U.S., the National Gallery displayed it one last time, drawing an astounding 90,000 people. The Gallery's director, Charles Holmes, was so overcome by the loss that he wrote his own farewell to the piece on its back, which read, 'Au Revoir, C.H.'
It has remained in American hands ever since: Today The Blue Boy is the pride and joy of the art collection at the Huntington Library in California. The Blue Boy found its mate in California: Sharing the spotlight at the center of the Huntington Library's collection is Pinkie, a portrait of a sweet young girl in a pink dress and bonnet painted by English portraitist Thomas Lawrence. Twenty-four years the junior of Gainsborough's painting, the piece hangs across from The Blue Boy, giving the effect that the two young subjects stare-perhaps longingly-at each other.
The writer is an entertainment journalist, www.mentalfloss.com
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