The Blue Boy Thomas Gainsborough Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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For several hundred years, the portrait of The Blue Boy has been transfixing those who see it and is famous for the curious, defiant gaze of its subject, a boy, wearing unique attire. Interestingly, the story of this iconic work of art by Thomas Gainsborough is as colourful and lavish as the subject's blue pantaloons!

The Blue Boy is no Royal

Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy, an oil on canvas, around 1770 and drew inspiration from the 17th century Flemish painter Van Dyck and his Portrait of Charles, Lord Strange. Paying careful attention to his subjects and the fine details of their features and expressions, Gainsborough also believed in using the surrounding backdrop to set the scene for their mood and character. At heart, Gainsborough was far more inclined to paint landscapes and once famously admitted that he only painted portraits for the income they brought him but landscapes were his real love.

Despite giving the Blue Boy a regal yet relaxed appearance, the young lad in the painting is not a member of the royal family. For years, art historians pondered over his identity, with the final verdict being that he was Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy hardware merchant with whom Gainsborough had struck up a friendship.

The Inspiration for the Portrait

There are several theories about the inspiration for The Blue Boy. Some believe that Gainsborough may have painted him out of spite for his hated rival, the portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds. Roynolds held strong opinions about the use of colour in portraits and had specifically stated that paintings should always contain a warm, mellow colour, made up of yellows, reds or a yellowish white. Reynolds also thought that colder colours such as blue, grey and green should only play a supporting role to off-set these warmer colours. What's more, to achieve this, he believed that they should only be used very sparingly. In fact, The Blue Boy is quite the opposite, with blue clearly dominating the entire portrait.

The Painting's Journey over Time

The portrait was unveiled in 1770 at the Royal Academy and, as Gainsborough had hoped, it enjoyed a rave reception at this prestigious newly-opened venue. Viewers liked the vubrant colours and well-thought-through brush strokes, making it an instant success. The Blue Boy makes such an impact with its life-size dimensions, measuring 1.78 m x 1.12 m. Initially, the subject of the portrain, Jonathan Buttall, owned the painting. However, in 1796, he was declared bankrupt and sold it to John Nesbitt, a politician at the time. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the portrait fell into the hands of the well-known portrait artist, John Hoppner, but in 1809 it was sold to Earl Grosvenor. It remained in his family for over 100 years until it was sold by the second Duke of Westminster.

While the original painting was exhibited at the British Institution and the Royal Academy where it was subject to much critical acclaim, it was also reproduced as prints, which were available to the general public. By 1920, it had earned its place as one of the iconic pantings of English heritage. However, in 1921, The Blue Boy was sold to dealer Joseph Duveen and left England bound for America and a new home with railroad tycoon Henry Edwards Huntington. This caused an English outcry among many who were sickened by the portrait leaving its homeland.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica reports that Huntington purchased the portrait for $728,800 (£182,200), which was a record breaking price at the time. The New York Times, reported the purchase price as being sold for $640,000 on 11 November 1921. This equals a staggering $8.5 million today. Ahead of The Blue Boy's departure for the U.S., it was exhibited for a final time by The National Gallery, attracting an incredible 90,000 people. Charles Holmes, director of the gallery, was so moved by the portrait's impending departure that he inscribed "Au Revoir, C.H." on the back, which was technically an act of vandalism!

A Home in the US and Fascinating Insights

Since arriving in the U.S., the painting has stayed there and is now part of the Huntington Library's collection in California. There, it shares the spotlight with another portrait from the collection, Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence, a pretty young girl dressed in pink. Lawrence was also an English portrait artist and painted Pinkie nearly a quarter of a centure after Gainsborough's The Blue Boy. However, the two portraits face eachother in the Huntington Library gallery, giving the appearance of the young subjects staring quizzically at one other.

There was a fascinating insight into the portrait's roots in 1939 when it was X-rayed, revealing that an unfinished painting of an older man had originally been painted onto the canvas before the boy covered him over. Another surprise followed in 1995 when the painting was again X-rayed, showing that Gainsborough had painted a dog next to the boy, but then covered it over with rocks.

The Blue Boy as a Contemporary Source of Inspiration

Over time, The Blue Boy has inspired other works of art. Indeed, in 1919, German film producer Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau created a film called Knabe in Blau (The Boy in Blue). Gainsborough's painting also encouraged pop artist Robert Rauschenberg to pick up a brush and start painting. More recently in 2010, The Blue Boy influenced Django Unchained, a western by Quentin Tarantino. In this film, the anti-hero wears a bright blue suit, the inrpiration for this being The Blue Boy as confirmed by costume designer Sharen Davis. In conclusion the portrain The Blue Boy is not just remarkable due to the boy's presence, but also his lavish costume, which stands out from the background, giving an air of confidence, grandeur and status.

Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy oil painting is a classic period work which has become one of the most famous British paintings of that time, and also a popular choice as art reproduction for those looking to add some classic British art to their own homes. Gainsborough was most famous for depicting full length portraits of high-standing people of the era with complex landscapes set across the background, which was relatively unusual at that time. The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough is a portrait of a young man, believed to be Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy hardware merchant. This was never fully confirmed, however.

Gainsborough is believed to have been influenced throughout his career by the workings of Van Dyck, and The Blue Boy offers great similarities to Van Dyck's portrait of Charles II when a boy. Thomas Gainsborough was just one of several key British artists from traditional movements such as Renaissance, Baroque and Romanticism who helped develop British artists. JMW Turner was a key painter from the latter, and you can find Turner paintings here. For those interested in famous British oil paintings, you may also like the Fighting Temeraire by William Turner. It features a classic Turner Romanticist seascape and remains that artist's most loved painting.