Project Blue Boy


The Blue Boy, (ca. 1770), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), oil on canvas, 70 5/8 x 48 3/4 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Blue Boy Conservation Exhibition Opens Sept. 22

“Project Blue Boy” will allow visitors to watch and learn about high-tech analysis and treatment of Thomas Gainsborough’s 18th-century masterpiece in the historic Thornton Portrait Gallery

The exhibition “Project Blue Boy” opens at The Huntington Sept. 22, 2018, offering visitors a glimpse into the technical processes of a senior conservator working on the famous painting as well as background on its history, mysteries, and artistic virtues. One of the most iconic paintings in British and American history, The Blue Boy, made around 1770 by English painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), is undergoing its first major conservation treatment. Home to the work since its acquisition by founder Henry E. Huntington in 1921, The Huntington will conduct some of the project in public view, as part of a year-long educational exhibition that runs through Sept. 30, 2019.


The Blue Boy, (ca. 1770), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), oil on canvas, 70 5/8 x 48 3/4 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.


Structural and Visual Repairs

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.


Haag-Streit Surgical Microscope Used

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 is using a Haag-Streit surgical microscope to closely examine the painting. To gather material information, she is employing 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. “One area we’d like to better understand is, what technical means did Gainsborough use to achieve his spectacular visual effects?” said Melinda McCurdy, The Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of the exhibition. “He was known for his lively brushwork and brilliant, multifaceted color. Did he develop special pigments, create new materials, pioneer new techniques?” She and O’Connell will build upon clues gleaned from previous conservation projects to learn more. “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?” McCurdy also looks forward to discovering other anomalies that may become visible beneath the surface paint, and what they might indicate about Gainsborough’s painting practice.


Who is The Blue Boy?

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.


Henry Huntington Purchases The Blue Boy for the Highest Price Ever Paid for a Painting

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.


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).


Press Release


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.


The Atlantic: Saving One of Western Art’s Most Iconic Paintings

Saving One of Western Art’s Most Iconic Paintings


VIDEO: Eye to Eye with "The Blue Boy"

Eye to Eye with The Blue Boy


Los Angeles Times (June 1995):  Exorcising the Ghosts of Art : X-rays of 'Blue Boy' and 'Pinkie' and other British masterpieces reveal ghost images and the choices the artists made while painting. 


Huntington Frontiers
 Contemplating the impact of Blue Boy's departure from England


VERSO: How Do You Frame a Masterpiece?


About The Huntington

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by Henry E. and Arabella Huntington. Henry Huntington, a key figure in the...

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