Thomas Gainsborough, “The Blue Boy,” circa 1770, oil on canvas, 70 x 44 inches, Huntington Library

In this occasional series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week: Thomas Gainsborough, “The Blue Boy.”

Considered by many to be Thomas Gainsborough’s (1727-1788) most famous painting, “The Blue Boy” is a masterful full-length portrait that has captivated connoisseurs and scholars for centuries. Believed to be a portrait of Jonathan Buttall — the son of a wealthy hardware merchant — the image is not just remarkable for the sitter’s presence, but his lavish costume as well, which flashes from the surface with grandeur, confidence, and status.

After being exhibited continually during the early 19th century, “The Blue Boy” developed a life of its own, becoming a popular reproduction in print and inviting public adoration. In 1919, the picture inspired German film producer Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau to create his debut film, “The Boy in Blue.”

An outcry in Britain resulted from the painting’s being sold to an American in 1921 for a then-world-record $640,000 — nearly $9 million on today’s market. Legend suggests that the exhibition of the painting at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., moved Robert Rauschenberg toward painting.

Today the painting is housed at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. To learn more about this magnificent work, visit the library here.

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.



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