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The Blue Boy was once the “most famous picture in the world.”

Truth be told, Thomas Gainsborough's most recognized painting isn’t that unique. The Blue Boy was greatly inspired by the work of Anthony Van Dyck. Gainsborough even used the same pose Van Dyck used in his painting George Villiers and His Brother Francis. The Blue Boy depicts Jonathan Buttall as a child, though X-rays have revealed the original painting was supposed to be a young man accompanied by a dog. Despite his fancy clothes Jonny wasn’t an aristocrat but the son of an ironmonger, an uncommon subject for portraits. Gainsborough clothed him in satin and lace all the same just to be ironic.

Like all great things, The Blue Boy was created out of spite. Gainsborough’s frenemy Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy, stated, “The masses of light should always be of warm, mellow colours; greys and greens should be used only to support and set these off.” Seeing that this was indeed the typical approach to portraiture, Gainsborough went ahead and painted a portrait that did the exact opposite. The sky-blues were used to color the subject, while earth-toned colors were transferred to the skies. He then gave the portrait to the subject Buttall who kept it until his bankruptcy. The painting was eventually sold in 1921 by art dealer Joseph Duveen to American railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington for £182,000 (~$728,000), making it the most expensive painting ever sold at the time.

As you might guess, the British weren’t too happy about their favorite painting being sold to an American. After its purchase the portrait was displayed in Britain one last time at the National Gallery where it attracted over 90,000 visitors before relocating to San Marino, California. The gallery director Charles Holmes was so upset that he scribbled “Au Revoir, C.H” on the back of the painting. Mr. Huntington probably wasn’t too pleased discovering that note.

The Blue Boy is now one of the main attractions at the Huntington Art Gallery where it stands opposite of the Thomas Lawrence portrait Pinkie. Despite the fact these two paintings were painted a quarter century apart by different painters, they are often mistaken to be by the same artist. The two portraits are associated together based on cliched gender norms- boy in blue, girl in pink. No wonder they served as set decorations in the suburban sitcom Leave It to Beaver.

While The Blue Boy is no longer the most talked-about painting in the world, it left a long-lasting cultural influence. It was the main inspiration behind F.W Murnau’s first film "Der Knabe in Blau" before he went on to make classic horror film "Nosferatu." More recently it inspired Django’s outfit in the Tarantino film "Django Unchained."

The Blue Boy was also responsible for inspiring artists’ career paths. American artist Robert Rauschenberg claimed that seeing The Blue Boy was his first encounter with art and the first time he realized somebody could actually be an artist. Painter Kehinde Wiley--whose portrait of Obama you might recognize--took art classes at the Huntington Library as a child and cites The Blue Boy as one of his biggest inspirations. It’s The Blue Boy’s artistically-done defiance of 18th century expectations that allows this simple portrait of a middle-class child in upper-class clothing to be so culturally accessible and inspiring even in the 21st century.


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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Blue Boy

The Blue Boy (c. 1770) is a full-length portrait in oil by Thomas Gainsborough, now at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


One of Gainsborough's most famous works, The Blue Boy is thought to be a portrait of Jonathan Buttle (1752–1805), the son of a wealthy hardware merchant, although this has never been proven. It is a historical costume study as well as a portrait; the painting of the youth in his eighteenth-century apparel is regarded as Gainsborough's homage to Anthony van Dyck and is very similar to Van Dyck's portraits of Charles II as a boy.

Gainsborough had already drawn something on the canvas before beginning The Blue Boy, which he painted over. The painting is about life-size, measuring 48 inches (1,200 mm) wide by 70 inches (1,800 mm) tall. Gainsborough painted the portrait in response to the advice of his rival Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had written:

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. 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.

The painting was in Buttle's possession until he filed for bankruptcy in 1796. It was first bought by the politician John Nesbitt and then, in 1802, by the portrait painter John Hoppner. In about 1809, The Blue Boy entered the collection of the Earl Grosvenor and remained with his descendants until its sale by the second Duke of Westminster to the dealer Joseph Duveen in 1921. By then, it had become a great popular favourite in print reproductions after having been exhibited to the public in various exhibitions at the British Institution, Royal Academy and elsewhere.

In 1919, the painting inspired German film producer Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau to create his debut film Knabe in Blau (The Boy in Blue).

In a move that caused a public outcry in Britain, it was then sold to the American railway pioneer Henry Edwards Huntington for $728,800 (£182,200), according to Duveen's bill, a then-record price for any painting. According to a mention in The New York Times dated 11 November 1921, the purchase price was $640,000, which would be $9.29 million in 2020.

Before its departure to California in 1922, The Blue Boy was briefly put on display at the National Gallery, where it was seen by 90,000 people; the Gallery's director Charles Holmes was moved to scrawl farewell words on the back of the painting: "Au Revoir, C.H."

The Blue Boy will be on show at the National Gallery, London, on January 25 2022, exactly a century to the day since it left the UK. It will remain in the National Gallery for five months before returning to the US permanently.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Blue Boy