The iconic painting by Thomas Gainsborough formally titled A Portrait of a Young Gentleman but known worldwide as The Blue Boy will get its first thorough technical analysis and conservation at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. The painting will be removed from public view on Tuesday, August 8th, and will first undergo preliminary analysis. That phase is scheduled to end on November 1st, after which conservators will use the new information to plan an extensive year-long conservation from September 2018 through September 2019. In total, Project Blue Boy will take two years.
The Blue Boy won’t be hidden from view all that time, however, because the year-long conservation will be done in the Thornton Portrait Gallery where the painting usually hangs. That will give visitors, who are probably there in the first place primarily to see the greatest jewel in The Huntington’s crown, a unique opportunity to observe experts at work conserving the art historical masterpiece.
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.
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 will use a surgical microscope to closely examine the painting. To gather material information, she will employ 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.
“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.
Gainsborough painted the work in 1770 on his own initiative. No client commissioned it. The Blue Boy was Gainsborough’s first foray into creating a Van Dyck-style court portrait, hence the characteristic 17th century garb of silk knee breeches, doublet with slashed sleeves and lace collar. His aim was to prove himself against the standards of the previous century’s most illustrious portraitist to Britain’s royalty and nobility and he succeeded. The portrait was a great hit at the 1770 Royal Academy exhibition and Thomas Gainsborough, the son of a weaver whose clientele had been merchants and country squires, was now acclaimed on a par with Sir Anthony van Dyck, son of wealthy parents, child prodigy and portraitists to the aristocracy of Europe since he was 21 years old.
The identity of the sitter is unknown, but one possibility is that its first owner Jonathan Buttall, who was 18 in 1770, is the subject. He was the son of a prosperous businessman (raw iron and retail manufactured goods) and a good friend of Gainsborough’s. They bonded over their love of music and remained close friends until the artist’s death in 1788, so much so that at the end of his life Gainsborough asked Buttall to attend his funeral, an honor he accorded very few people even amongst his circle of friends of family.
The Blue Boy was sold to railway magnate Henry E. Huntington, founder of the museum that bears his name, in 1921 by British art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen who had acquired it that same year from the second Duke of Westminster. Huntington paid the greatest amount ever paid up until that time for a painting — $728,800, about $9 million today — and the sale generated massive publicity and protests. Back then, there was no law that could block export of an object of exceptional cultural significance so Britain lost The Blue Boy to California. It’s been hanging at The Huntington since the museum opened in 1928.
Duveen made a fortune matchmaking American plutocrats with the cultural patrimony of impoverished British aristocrats and would later become notorious for his slipshod, aggressive and damaging “restorations” of artworks to make them shiny (literally) before selling them. The Blue Boy did not escape his less than tender mercies. He told the press shortly after he bought the portrait from the Duke of Westminster that he planned to have it “cleaned and revarnished” before putting it on display. Perhaps Project Blue Boy will discover the remnants of Duveen’s interventions as well.
The Huntington has set up a website dedicated to Project Blue Boy where you can track the progress of the analysis and conservation of this iconic work of art.