American captains of industry may have accumulated their wealth in less than honorable ways, but they did have good taste. They often used their newly acquired wealth to buy the best artworks the world could offer. Much of that art came from the private collections and museums of Europe.
Harry E. Huntington (1850–1927) was a railroad magnate who collected art, and the Duke of Westminster had a treasure that Huntington wanted: “The Blue Boy” by Thomas Gainsborough, painted circa 1770. When it came up for sale in 1921, Huntington outbid all comers and, for over $700,000, brought “The Blue Boy” to California in 1922.
The painting has a special place in the hearts of the British people. It is estimated that over 90,000 visited the painting a last time before it was packed up for America. The National Gallery’s curator, Charles Holmes, even dared to mark up the back of the canvas with a parting message, “Au Revoir,” as if to say, not goodbye, but “I’ll see you soon.”
A Comely Youth and That Color
The figure in the painting shows an older boy on the cusp of young adulthood wearing the blue satin doublet and breeches of a previous age. Gainsborough dressed the subject in the fashion of 100 years before when his hero, Anthony van Dyck, was the preeminent portraitist. The boy stands in contrapposto, with his bodily weight on a foot that steps forward, like ancient Greek sculptures. The pose shows a youth full of confidence as he steps into manhood.
His look is direct; the pose is known as the “look out”—to invite the viewer into the painting and enjoy it, and the viewer is mesmerized. Many have speculated on who modeled for the painting. Historians now think that the subject is Gainsborough Dupont, the artist’s nephew and apprentice.
Gainsborough painted the boy’s apparel in shimmering blue, using daubs of paint that make the silk shimmer in the light. The English landscape in the background is in muted shades of brown, as a stark contrast to the shining figure in the foreground.
Joshua Reynolds and Gainsborough were well-known as professional rivals, and it was the most positive rivalry possible, with each artist challenging the other to up his game. They were known to be friendly, but not friends, and were always watching each other’s work. Toward the end of his life, however, Gainsborough expressed his feelings for his esteemed fellow artist in a letter: “I can from a sincere Heart say that I always admired and sincerely loved Sir Joshua Reynolds.”
The two eminent artists respectfully disagreed with each other on painting techniques. Of Gainsborough’s freer approach, Reynolds said “Those odd scratches and marks … by a kind of magic … assumes form,” according to an online article titled “The Golden Age of Portraiture.” Reynolds contended that cool colors, such as blue, could never be used as the focal point of an artwork. Only warmer hues—reds, oranges, yellows, and browns—would stand out in the foreground while cooler tones such as blue, green, gray, and purple should be in the background.
Reynolds once gave a lecture on the importance of using warmer tones in the foreground. Around 1764, he portrayed an aristocratic young man in a relaxed pose wearing a suit in soft brown encircled by soft patches of blue: a portrait of Thomas Lister, nicknamed “The Brown Boy.” Lister would become the 1st Baron Ribblesdale of Gisburne Park.
It appears that this was a challenge his friendly rival could not resist, and “The Blue Boy” was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1770. Originally titled “A Portrait of a Young Gentleman,” by 1798 the painting was known by what we call it today.
Another Boy and a Girl
Gainsborough’s beloved work had the power to make other paintings famous. Recently, The National Gallery acquired another painting of a boy, titled “The Red Boy” by Thomas Lawrence, completed somewhere between 1818 and 1825. Here, a much younger child, possibly 6 or 7 years old, is cuddled up in a chair wearing a red velvet playsuit. The painting was commissioned by the child’s father, John George Lambton, who became the first Earl of Durham in 1833.
Back in California, Huntington’s residence in San Marino was updated in 1934 by adding a new gallery, as the magnate wanted to display the gem of his collection in the best light possible. In 1927, he purchased a painting of a young girl completed in 1794 also by Lawrence. It was to be shown with “The Blue Boy” as centerpieces of the Huntington Library and Museum.
The subject, Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton, was nicknamed “Pinkie” by her family. Lawrence dressed the young girl, thought to be 11 at the time of the painting, in the fashion of day, a pink Grecian-style dress that swirls in the wind. The girl is shown at the apex of youthful, feminine beauty. Like “The Blue Boy,” her gaze is direct, and the artist’s energetic brushwork mirrors Gainsborough’s to give the portrait a lively immediacy. The breeze that pulls at her gown hints that her natural beauty will soon fade. Sarah Moulton died at the age of 12 and, coincidently, was the aunt of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
While Pinkie wears a gown in the Napoleonic style of the day and Gainsborough and Lawrence were contemporaries, the wardrobe of “The Blue Boy” was set 100 years earlier to honor van Dyck.
Back at The National Gallery
Charles Holmes’s parting wish is being fulfilled as, almost 100 years to the day it left, “The Blue Boy” returns to its British roots. The Huntington Library and Art Museum completed a comprehensive restoration of the painting in 2020 before sending it to The National Gallery where it is on display until May 2022.
Today “The Blue Boy” represents a universal expression of manhood-in-the-making and shows that a portrait is no longer the preserve of royalty or the upper classes. Two acclaimed 18th-century artists have painted boys on the cusp of adulthood, one of an aristocrat in a more passive pose that seems to fade into the background; the other, a commoner, stepping forward into his future as both sides of the Atlantic cheer him on.