conservationist inpainting The Blue Boy portrait

The Blue Boy

Thomas Gainsborough’s (1727–1788) iconic painting was first shown 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 and Arabella Huntington purchased The Blue Boy in 1921 for $728,000, at that time the highest price ever paid for a painting. By bringing a British treasure to the United States, the Huntingtons imbued an already well-known image with even greater notoriety on both sides of the Atlantic. But beyond its cultural significance, the painting is considered a masterpiece of artistic virtuosity. Gainsborough’s command of color and mastery of brushwork are on full display in the painting, made even more apparent as a result of the conservation and restoration of this priceless portrait as part of “Project Blue Boy.”

Restoration of The Blue Boy

In 2017, conservators began a preliminary analysis of The Blue Boy using a range of imaging techniques. This was followed in 2018 by “Project Blue Boy,” a restoration project that offered visitors a glimpse into the technical process of conserving one of Gainsborough’s finest works. During the public phase of the project, visitors were able to interact with The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator Christina O’Connell while she worked to conserve the painting in-gallery. When the painting returned to the Thornton Portrait Gallery after final inpainting, varnish, and framing adjustments, the virtuosity of Gainsborough’s brushwork and the brilliance of his palette were more apparent than ever.

Blue Boy with x-rays

The Blue Boy (ca. 1770) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) shown in normal light photography (left), digital x-radiography (center, including a dog previously revealed in a 1994 x-ray), and infrared reflectography (right). Oil on canvas, 70 5/8 x 48 3/4. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Project Blue Boy installation view

Huntington senior paintings conservator examines The Blue Boy through a Haag-Streit surgical microscope.

Project Blue Boy installation view

Visitors get a glimpse into the technical processes involved in conservation treatment in Project Blue Boy.


The Blue Boy in the Thornton Portrait Gallery before conservation.

Kehinde Wiley’s A Portrait of a Young Gentleman

In 2021, the newly commissioned painting by renowned American artist Kehinde Wiley, A Portrait of a Young Gentleman, debuted in the Thornton Portrait Gallery, across from Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (ca. 1770).  Inspired by The Blue Boy, and using the same title that Gainsborough originally used for his painting, Wiley’s Portrait of a Young Gentleman is a large-scale work in the grand manner style. Wiley has long talked about the role The Huntington played in his formative years as an artist growing up in Los Angeles. When he was young, his mother enrolled him in art classes at The Huntington, where he encountered a formidable collection of British grand manner portraits—monumental depictions of England’s 18th- and 19th-century noble class. The portraits made such an impression on Wiley that he would later incorporate their stylistic representations of wealth, glory, and power into his own artistic practice, focusing on the Black and brown bodies missing from the museums he visited.

Expand image young African American man on floral print background
The Blue Boy on display at the National Gallery, London, 1922. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The Blue Boy Goes to London

In 2022, The Huntington lent its iconic Blue Boy to the National Gallery in London for an exhibition exactly 100 years after Gainsborough’s masterpiece left London for California. The four-month exhibition ran from Jan. 25 to May 3, 2022, before the painting returned home to The Huntington permanently. The Blue Boy is back on view in the Thornton Portrait Gallery in the Huntington Art Gallery.

Science journalist Usha Lee McFarling sat down with Christina O’Connell, paintings conservator for “Project Blue Boy,” and John House, ear surgeon of the House Ear Clinic in Los Angeles, as they talked about the project.

Who is the Blue Boy, and why is the painting so important?

The Blue Boy undergoes its first major technical examination and conservation treatment in public view, in a special satellite conservation studio set up in the west end of The Huntington’s grand portrait gallery.

Infrared reflectography, x-radiography, and ultraviolet light were used to reveal clues about The Blue Boy’s history.

The Atlantic takes readers inside the massive two-year museum effort to conserve The Blue Boy, Thomas Gainsborough’s famed 18th-century portrait.

X-rays of Blue Boy and Pinkie and other British masterpieces reveal ghost images and the choices the artists made while painting.

Senior paintings conservator Christina O’Connell goes “eye to eye” with The Huntington’s most famous painting with the help of a Hi-R NEO 900 Haag-Streit surgical microscope, on loan from Haag-Streit USA.

So The Blue Boy is a big deal. But what’s the story behind the famous painting’s frame?