Under 100 degree skies, and amidst empty gardens, galleries and hallways, we finally visited Thomas Gainsborough’s iconic Blue Boy painting on Thursday, now reinstalled in the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens’ Thornton Portrait Gallery, after an 18-month conservation effort.
Originally scheduled for installation in March 2020, but delayed due to mandatory COVID-related museum closures, the painting is as magnificent as one can imagine—with its shimmering blues, skin tones, details, highlights, and muted backgrounds, the larger-than-life painting is spectacular to view in person.
Even a press visit for last month was delayed, as smoke and ash from the Bobcat Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains prevented the gallery doors from being opened and closed all day long—hence the new date.
Because of the strict COVID-related policies in place, we were led in, only a reporter and photographer, a guide and a guard, alone in the spacious gallery.
The painting occupies the center spot of the back wall of the Thornton, immediately snatching your attention as you walk inside. The eyes of the young model—either Jonathan Buttall, the painting’s first owner and son of the artist’s friend; or Gainsborough’s nephew and studio assistant, Gainsborough Dupont—follow you as you stare up at the knowing but cherubic face, and note the subtle swagger in the model’s posture.
Minute shades of color, fine brush stroke textures, and nuanced details of the famous figure of a young man in a blue satin costume, as well as the landscape in which he stands, are once again legible and closer to what Gainsborough intended, according to a press announcement from the Huntington back in March.
“Gainsborough’s Blue Boy has inspired generations of artists and scholars, and absolutely captivated the public imagination since it was first displayed publicly in 1770,” said Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence, in the press announcement.
“As stewards of this iconic masterpiece, we are thrilled with the results of this landmark conservation project that has restored the painting’s original brilliance and ensured its wellbeing for years to come,” said Lawrence. “We can now see the vivid palette and the bold composition much more clearly than in decades past, and we cannot wait to share the painting with our visitors again, once it is safe to do so.”
Much of the conservation process, supported by a grant from Bank of America, was carried out in public view during The Huntington’s “Project Blue Boy” exhibition last year (Sept. 22, 2018–Sept. 30, 2019).
The undertaking involved high-tech data gathering and analysis as well as more than 500 hours of expert conservation work to remove old overpaint and varnish, repair and reattach the lining and other structural materials, and in-paint areas of loss as a result of flaking and abrasion.
Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s Mary Ann and John Sturgeon Senior Paintings Conservator and leader of the project, removed several uneven layers of dirt and discolored varnish with small cotton swabs to reveal Gainsborough’s original brilliant blues and other pigments. Then, with tiny brushes, she reconnected the artist’s brush strokes across the voids of past damage as part of the inpainting process.
As O’Connell worked on the painting, she became intimately aware of Gainsborough’s every brushstroke. “It’s been an incredibly deep professional experience,” she said.
An official date for the reopening of the Thornton Portrait Gallery has not been set.
See also: Project Blue Boy