Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy (c. 1770)

Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy (c 1770). Oil on canvas, 70 5/8 x 48 3/4 inches. The Huntington (The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens), California.

Gainsborough's Blue Boy is perhaps his most famous work and is thought to be to be of Jonathan Buttall, the son of a merchant. Often seen as an homage to Sir Anthony van Dyck because of his costume and pose. The work itself is a comment or rebuke to Gainsborough's rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the head of the Royal Academy and master of Grand Manner Portraiture.

Reynolds once wrote:
"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 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." Implying as he did that no work could be painted with the primary color being a cold, or blue, tone Reynolds inadvertently challenged the younger Gainsborough (14 May 1727 – 2 August 1788) to prove him wrong. He did this admirably.

From Huntington's own website the challenge seems less important than the huge influence van Dyck had on Gainsborough and this influence is obvious in most of Gainsborough's work. The website states, "The artist has dressed the young man in a costume dating from about 140 years before the portrait was painted. This type of costume was familiar through the portraits of the great Flemish painter, Anthony van Dyck (1559-1641), who was resident in England during the early 17th century. Gainsborough greatly admired the work of Van Dyck and seems to have conceived The Blue Boy as an act of homage to that master. - from Huntington.org

For myself, I believe it was a bit of both. The acrimony between Gainsborough and Reynolds is well-documented from the day Gainsborough left the Academy to develop his own style outside of that of the Academicians that ruled the art world in England during that period. This work is a charming portrait that has a long history of dispute. Also very valuable, some of its fame is also due to the astronomical price that was paid for it when it first came to the United States.

The Old Masters dealer, Lord Joseph Duveen, sold the work to American railway mogul Henry Edwards Huntington in 1921 for $728,800 which was record price for any painting sold before that time. To see a thoroughly British painting go across the Atlantic was heartbreaking for may Britons but the sale went through and now the paintings has pride of place as the star piece of the Huntington Library's collection in San Marino, California.

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