The Blue Boy’s Makeover

Aug 6, 2017

The Blue Boy has been using his defiant stare and unique fashion sense to transfix viewers for centuries.”¹

Thomas Gainsborough’s 1779 full-length, life-size portrait in oil The Blue Boy is about to get a makeover. On August 8, this work of art will be removed from its dominate position in the Huntington’s Thornton Portrait Gallery—where it has hung since 1928—and undergo a technical examination to determine the appropriate conservation treatment. This is a 2-year project with the final stage predominately taking place in public view. A year-long exhibit, called “Project Blue Boy,” will be open to the public from September 2018 to September 2019.

“We are profoundly conscious of our duty of care towards this unique and remarkable treasure,” said Steve Hindle, The Huntington’s Interim President and W.M. Keck Foundation Director of Research. “The Blue Boy has been the most beloved work of art at The Huntington since it opened its doors in 1928. It is with great pride that we launch this thoughtful and painstaking endeavor to study, restore, and preserve Gainsborough’s masterpiece. The fact that we are able to do so while inviting the public to watch and to learn is both gratifying and exciting—not least since the project is so perfectly suited to our mission.”

Gainsborough was among the most prominent artists of his day. Though he preferred to paint landscapes, he made his career producing stylish portraits of the British gentry and aristocracy. Jonathan Buttall (1752–1805), the painting’s first owner, was once thought to have been the model for the painting, but the identity of the subject remains unconfirmed. The young man’s costume is significant. Instead of dressing the figure in the elegant finery worn by most subjects of the day, Gainsborough chose knee breeches and a slashed doublet with a lace collar—a clear nod to the work of Anthony van Dyck, the 17th-century Flemish painter who had profoundly influenced British art. The painting first appeared in public in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770 as A Portrait of a Young Gentleman, where it received high acclaim, and by 1798 it was being called “The Blue Boy”—a nickname that stuck. (



What’s so special about The Blue Boy? Susan Benford of Masterpiece Cards writes…

By 1770, Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) resided in Bath, England, where he had forged a reputation as one of the foremost portrait painters. His portraits were in demand by wealthy patrons who came to the Bath spa (and soaked, fully clothed, in its allegedly healing waters). Problematically, though, Thomas Gainsborough disliked portraiture, preferring landscapes. He allegedly commented: “I paint portraits to live, landscapes because I love them, and music because I cannot leave it alone.”


Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of Mrs. Siddons, 1785.


His solution, as evidenced in one of his most famous paintings, The Blue Boy, was the creation of a “landscape portrait.” When The Blue Boy was first exhibited in 1770, Gainsborough was striving to cement his reputation in London.  

He showed The Blue Boy at the Royal Academy, a celebrated venue that had opened the prior year.  

The portrait was quite well received, and remains one of the most famous paintings Gainsborough created.

Because it’s a show-stopper.

Gainsborough handles paint so brilliantly that The Blue Boy has the volume of a Renaissance sculpture. The delicate, feathery brushstrokes of the glistening blue costume are echoed at his feet and in the storm clouds and sunset. Thomas Gainsborough shows his hand as a Rococco painter while eschewing contemporary taste for a smooth, flat finish.²


Thomas Gainsborough, self-portrait, 1754.


Michael Prodder of the Guardian, expands on Gainsborough’s dislike of portraiture…

Gainsborough painted the sedate countryside of his native Suffolk, treating it in more in the modest, naturalistic manner of 17th-century Dutch artists than that of the French and Italians. Although he painted real places, landscapes were a form of release. He wrote to a friend that: “‘I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gam and walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips …” And when he couldn’t, he simply made them up using little mises-en-scène of mirrors for water, coal for rocks, moss for greenery and broccoli for trees and finessed them into woodland settings.³


Thomas Gainsborough, Wooded Landscape with a Herdsman Seated; photo credit, Gainsborough’s House.


The Huntington continues…

The Blue Boy requires conservation to address both structural and visual concerns. The painting is so important and popular that it has been on almost constant display since The Huntington opened to the public almost 100 years ago.

“The most recent conservation treatments have mainly involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep The Blue Boy on view as much as possible,” said Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator and co-curator of the exhibition. “The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured.” According to O’Connell, there are also several areas where the paint is beginning to lift and flake, making the work vulnerable to loss and permanent damage; and the adhesive that binds the canvas to its lining is failing, meaning the painting does not have adequate support for long-term display. These issues and more will be addressed by Project Blue Boy.

In addition to contributing to scholarship in the field of conservation, the undertaking will likely uncover new information of interest to art historians. O’Connell will use a Haag-Streit surgical microscope to closely examine the painting. To gather material information, she will employ imaging techniques including digital x-radiography, infrared reflectography, ultraviolet fluorescence, and x-ray fluorescence. The data from these analytical techniques will contribute to a better understanding of the materials Gainsborough procured to create The Blue Boy while at the same time revealing information about earlier conservation treatments. The Huntington will address several questions.



Melinda McCurdy, The Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of the exhibition explains…

“One area we’d like to better understand is, what technical means did Gainsborough use to achieve his spectacular visual effects? He was known for his lively brushwork and brilliant, multifaceted color. Did he develop special pigments, create new materials, pioneer new techniques? We know from earlier x-rays that The Blue Boy was painted on a used canvas, on which the artist had begun the portrait of a man,” she said. “What might new technologies tell us about this earlier abandoned portrait? Where does this lost painting fit into his career? How does it compare with other portraits from the 1760s?”

Puchko at Mental Floss writes that Gainsborough had a “heated rivalry” with portrait painter and 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 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.”


Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas, Holywells Park, Ipswich; photo credit, Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service.


Though The Blue Boy is a prized possession, when Henry Huntington purchased the portrait, it broke hearts across the Atlantic…

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.

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.”

The Huntington’s website will track the Blue Boy Project as it unfolds at


Thomas Gainsborough, self portrait.


The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino 91108
Hours: Wednesday-Monday, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; closed Tuesday
Admission: $23, adults; $19, seniors and students; $10, youth (4-11)
Ph: 1.626.405.2100
For complete info, please visit

Here are some details of a trip we took to the Huntington last July—partly to escape the heat!—”Relieve the Heat of Summer” by Kat Ward, July 4, 2016.


Thomas Gainsborough. The artist’s daughters chasing a butterfly. Circa 1756.


About The Blue Boy

Henry E. Huntington (1850–1927) purchased The Blue Boy in 1921 for the highest price ever then paid for a painting. By bringing a British treasure to the United States, Huntington imbued an already well-known image with even greater notoriety—on both sides of the Atlantic. Before allowing the painting to be transferred to San Marino, art dealer Joseph Duveen orchestrated an international publicity campaign that “rivaled those surrounding blockbuster movies today,” said McCurdy. “In its journey from London to Los Angeles, The Blue Boy underwent a shift from portrait to icon, as the focus of a series of limited-engagement exhibitions engineered by Duveen.” The image remains recognizable to this day, appearing in works of contemporary art and in vehicles of popular culture—from major motion pictures to velvet paintings.

But beyond its cultural significance, “the painting is a masterpiece of artistic virtuosity,” said McCurdy, who has spent many years studying The Huntington’s premiere collection of British Grand Manner portraits. “Gainsborough’s command of color and his sheer mastery of brushwork are on full display in this painting, and they will only become more apparent as a result of this conservation work.”

Six other life-size Grand Manner portraits by Gainsborough line The Thornton Portrait Gallery. They depict composer Karl Friedrich Abel (ca. 1777); Elizabeth (Jenks) Beaufoy, later Elizabeth Pycroft (ca. 1780); Edward, Viscount (later Earl) Ligonier (1770); Penelope (Pitt), Viscountess Ligonier (1770); Juliana (Howard), Baroness Petre (1778); and Henrietta Read, later Henrietta Meares (ca. 1777).

Conservation funded by a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. Generous support for this project is provided by Kim and Ginger Caldwell and Haag-Streit USA.
—(Text for “About The Blue Boy” courtesy of the Huntington)


Thomas Gainsborough, Landscape with a Shepherd and His Flock.




¹ “15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Blue Boy” by Kristy Puchko, August 25, 2015,

² “Famous Paintings: The Blue Boy” by Susan Benford, April 2013,

³ “Constable, Turner, Gainsborough and the Making of Landscape” by Michael Prodger, November 23, 2012,

⁴ “15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Blue Boy” by Kristy Puchko, August 25, 2015,, and


Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of composer Karl Friedrich Abel, 1777.





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