Visitors will watch conservation treatment as it happens in “Project Blue Boy” exhibition, on view Sept. 2018 – Sept. 2019 in the Thornton Portrait Gallery
Published : Thursday, August 3, 2017 | 6:37 PM
One of the most famous paintings in British and American history and a long-time favorite of visitors at the Huntington Library, The Blue Boy, made around 1770 by English painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), will come down off off a gallery wall to undergo its first major technical examination and conservation treatment.
Project Blue Boy begins next week on on Aug. 8, 2017, when the life-size image of a young man in an iconic blue satin costume will go off public view for preliminary conservation analysis until Nov. 1.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, home to The Blue Boy since its acquisition by founder Henry E. Huntington in 1921, will conduct the conservation project over a two-year period. The final part of the project will largely take place in public view, during a year-long exhibition, also called “Project Blue Boy,” presented from Sept. 2018 to Sept. 2019 in the Thornton Portrait Gallery, where the painting traditionally hangs.
“We are profoundly conscious of our duty of care towards this unique and remarkable treasure,” said Steve Hindle, The Huntington’s Interim President and W.M. Keck Foundation Director of Research. “The Blue Boy has been the most beloved work of art at The Huntington since it opened its doors in 1928. It is with great pride that we launch this thoughtful and painstaking endeavor to study, restore, and preserve Gainsborough’s masterpiece. The fact that we are able to do so while inviting the public to watch and to learn is both gratifying and exciting—not least since the project is so perfectly suited to our mission.”
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 Haag-Streit 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. 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.
The Huntington’s website will track the project as it unfolds at huntington.org/projectblueboy.
About 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 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.
But beyond its cultural significance, “the painting is a masterpiece of artistic virtuosity,” said McCurdy, who has spent many years studying The Huntington’s premiere collection of British Grand Manner portraits. “Gainsborough’s command of color and his sheer mastery of brushwork are on full display in this painting, and they will only become more apparent as a result of this conservation work.”
Catherine Hess, The Huntington’s acting director of the art collections and its chief curator of European art said, “To this day, The Blue Boy remains the symbolic image of The Huntington’s art collections, and for good reason. Yes, it is a gorgeous thing. But beyond the skill of its execution, it piques the public imagination in a special way. We are thrilled to be able to analyze it even further than we have in the past while preserving it for generations to come.”
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).
About The Huntington
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public. More information about The Huntington can be found online at huntington.org
The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, Calif., 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. It is open to the public every day except Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Visitors can enjoy a variety of dining options on site, including the 1919 café, the Chinese Garden’s Freshwater Dumpling and Noodle House, and the Rose Garden Tea Room. Information: 626-405-2100 or huntington.org.