After training as an artist in London, Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), shown here, returned to his hometown in Suffolk and began painting portraits of local residents. In 1759, he moved his family to the fashionable spa town of Bath, hoping to raise the profile of his portrait practice and attract elite clientele.
In Bath, Gainsborough studied paintings by the Old Masters, including the courtly portraits of Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck. These often feature a full-length figure, richly colored fabric, architectural details, and a breezy landscape. Van Dyck’s portrait of Anne Kirke hangs just outside the Thornton Portrait Gallery.
Gainsborough’s striking portrait of Penelope, Viscountess Ligonier, on view in the Thornton Portrait Gallery, shows his adoption of Van Dyck’s courtly portrait style. Gainsborough’s sophisticated portraits of celebrities and aristocrats rivaled those of Joshua Reynolds, the most prominent portrait painter in England at the time.
Unlike Gainsborough, who preferred painting his sitters in contemporary clothes, Joshua Reynolds included references to classical or Renaissance art in order to elevate the intellectual level of his portraits. Reynolds’s portrait of Jane, Countess Harrington, which hangs in the Thornton Portrait Gallery, shows a costume meant to recall Greek or Roman sculpture.
The blue costume in The Blue Boy appears in several portraits of Gainsborough’s nephews, such as this one of Edward Gardiner. By mimicking the clothing of Van Dyck’s day, Gainsborough was not breaking his rule of avoiding the dress of the past. The outfit was in fact a masquerade costume of his time, one that paid tribute to the artist he admired above all others.
Gainsborough first exhibited The Blue Boy in 1770 at the Royal Academy in London, where he aimed to attract a wider patronage. The painting might be read as a statement of the artist’s talent, ambition, and intention to emulate Van Dyck. It certainly appeared so to artist Francis Hayman, who reportedly exclaimed, “It is as fine as a Van Dyck!”
The Blue Boy was long believed to be a portrait of its first owner, Jonathan Buttall, a friend of the Gainsborough family. However, when the painting was first exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1770, the artist titled it Portrait of a Young Gentleman. The blue costume may be a clue: it appears in several portraits of the painter’s nephews.
One scholar has suggested that The Blue Boy depicts the artist’s nephew Gainsborough Dupont, who lived with his uncle from an early age and later served as his apprentice and studio assistant.
This portrait of Dupont, painted a few years after The Blue Boy, shows him in what appears to be a very similar blue Van Dyck suit.
No portraits of Jonathan Buttall are known to exist, but this portrait of Gainsborough Dupont shows a young man with a straight nose and brown hair that is longer in the back. Do you think that he might be Blue Boy?
Henry and Arabella Huntington bought The Blue Boy in 1921 from art dealer Joseph Duveen, who had acquired it from the Duke of Westminster. Newspapers called it “the world’s most beautiful picture” and reported that the Huntingtons had bought it for $728,800, the highest price ever paid for a painting.
To publicize The Blue Boy’s sale, Joseph Duveen engineered a series of exhibitions at the National Gallery in London and his firm’s New York showroom. He told his clients about the atmosphere of reverence in London, where there were “crowds round the picture.” Composer Cole Porter wrote “Blue Boy Blues,” mourning its departure.
The Blue Boy is still among the world’s most recognizable British paintings. Its celebrity certainly stemmed from its reputation as one of Gainsborough’s most powerful works. The image has remained popular through countless reproductions, from prints and posters to textiles, ceramics, and dolls.
Text by Melinda McCurdy
User interface design by Catherine Bell
Reproductions of paintings by Thomas Gainsborough:
Self-Portrait, ca. 1758–59: photo © National Portrait Gallery, London
Edward Gardiner, ca. 1760–68: photo © Tate
Gainsborough Dupont, ca. 1770–72: photo © Tate
Gainsborough Dupont, ca. 1773: Waddesdon (Rothschild Family), on loan since 1997; acc. no. 346.1997. Photo: © Waddesdon Image Library
Gainsborough Dupont, ca. 1773: photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
All other images © Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Suggestions for further reading:
Catherine Hess and Melinda McCurdy, Blue Boy & Co.: European Art at the Huntington (2015)
Shelley M. Bennett, The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age (2013)
Susan Sloman, “Gainsborough’s ‘Blue boy,’” Burlington Magazine (2013)
Robyn Asleson and Shelley M. Bennett, British Paintings at the Huntington (2001)