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.