The Pasadena area’s most famous boy has finally been cleaned up, and now he’s ready for his close-up. The Blue Boy (ca. 1770), the celebrated painting by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) that recently underwent an extensive restoration, is back in its accustomed place, reinstalled in the Thornton Portrait Gallery at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens.
“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. “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 well-being for years to come. 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.”
The yearlong restoration was performed in public view as a special exhibition titled Project Blue Boy, which ran from September 2018 to September 2019. The project used high-tech data gathering and analysis and required over 500 hours of expert conservation to remove old overpaint and varnish and to repair and reattach the lining and other structural materials, as well as repaint areas damaged by flaking and abrasion.
The pre-restoration Blue Boy had yellowed with age, but now he’s resplendent in brilliant blues. Look closely, and you’ll be able to see how conservation exposed fine shades of color and brushstrokes as well as other nuanced details hidden for centuries.
“It’s been an incredibly deep professional experience,” said project leader Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s Mary Ann and John Sturgeon Senior Paintings Conservator. “Conservation work is very much a process of discovery. I’ve not only had a view of the painting at the microscopic level, but I was also able to observe each stroke as the true colors of Gainsborough’s palette were revealed from underneath many layers of dirt and discolored varnish.”
It’s notable that The Blue Boy wasn’t a paint-for-pay portrait. “We have to remember that this painting wasn’t commissioned but rather was produced by Gainsborough for the express purpose of showing off his prowess at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770—where it would be seen next to the work of his rivals,” said Melinda McCurdy, The Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of Project Blue Boy. “Gainsborough intended it to grab attention, and conservation work has revealed the incredible technical skill he brought to this showpiece.”
While the museum remains under pandemic restrictions, you can compare both versions and see explanatory videos on the website. But the refreshed painting’s colors and details are best seen in person, so when the museum reopens, be sure to welcome this famous boy back to his rightful reign at The Huntington.