"The Blue Boy" Revealed: Huntington to Unveil the Secrets of Famed Painting During Restoration Project

Published : Thursday, May 10, 2018 | 5:31 AM

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.

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.

“The Blue Boy,” painted around 1770 by Englishman Thomas Gainsborough, is among the best-known paintings of art history, but what’s less known is his dog, which was uncovered by X-rays in 1994.

The painting is just now going through its first restoration treatment courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, which will offer visitors a glimpse into the process.

“Project Blue Boy” will open at the museum on Sept. 22, 2018, with a

senior conservator working on the famous painting as well as giving a background on its history, mysteries, and artistic virtues.

The Huntington has been home to the piece since 1921 and will conduct some of the restoration work in front of the public as part of a year-long educational exhibition that runs through Sept. 30, 2019.

Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator and co-curator of the exhibition said “The Blue Boy” needs work.

“Earlier conservation treatments mainly have involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep it on view as much as possible. The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured,” she said.

O’Connell said there are also several areas where the paint is beginning to lift and flake, the adhesion between the painting and its lining is separating, and at some point in its life it was ripped. Conservators also found an L-shaped tear more than 11 inches in length, which may have occurred during the 19th century when the painting was in the collection of the Duke of Westminster and frequently exhibited.

Blue Boy’s pet appeared to be an English water spaniel that was eventually covered with a pile of painted rocks. In 1995, the LA Times reported that an X-ray of the top part of the painting showed an incomplete likeness of an older man.

Melinda McCurdy, The Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of the exhibition, said of the painter: “He was known for his lively brushwork and brilliant, multifaceted color. Did he develop special pigments, create new materials, pioneer new techniques? 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. 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 earlier portraits by Gainsborough?”

“The Blue Boy” will be on public view in a special satellite conservation studio set up in the west end of the Thornton Portrait Gallery for a few months before it disappears for three to four months while structural work is performed on the canvas. Once that work is complete, “The Blue Boy” will return to the gallery where visitors can witness the restoration process until the close of the exhibition.

The first in-gallery period is from Sept. 22 through about January 2019. Visitors can watch the process each Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 4 p.m., and on the first Sunday of each month from 2 to 4 p.m. A similar schedule will be in place during the second in-gallery session, estimated to begin in summer 2019.

Schedule updates will be posted on the web at huntington.org/projectblueboy.

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