“The Blue Boy” has long been the best-known and most popular artwork at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Artist Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of a young man in a blue satin suit has been on almost constant display since The Huntington opened in 1928.
But the years have not been kind to “The Blue Boy.” The painting is covered with layers of varnish and dirt, the colors have darkened over time and become dull and hazy, and some of the paint has started to lift and flake.
“The Blue Boy” was taken off view last month — the first step in a two-year conservation effort that will use state-of-the-art technology and techniques to restore the appearance of the painting and, hopefully, provide new information about the work and its artist. After conducting an extensive analysis of the painting, the public will be able to view the conservation process during “Project Blue Boy,” a year-long exhibition to begin next September.
During the project Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator and co-curator of the exhibition, will demonstrate conservation techniques, discuss her work with visitors and answer questions. A number of other museums have staged similar exhibits, but this is the first time The Huntington will put its conservation work on public display.
Since 1921, the year Henry Huntington purchased “The Blue Boy” for what was then the highest price ever paid for a painting, there have been several efforts to conserve the work. O’Connell has carefully reviewed this conservation history.
“There’s a long history of layers added, things being partially removed, and then there’s some history of the paint lifting from the surface that has been documented for decades,” she says. “We are comparing the written records and spending a lot of time now looking at the actual painting in a sort of forensic way, and the painting is going to give us clues that line up with what’s documented. We’re applying new techniques to look at it. There’s new equipment that hasn’t been available before.”
Working with scientists whom Huntington will hire from other institutions, O’Connell will look at the surface of the painting with a Haag-Streit surgical microscope, which has been specially designed for ophthalmologists and surgeons and features high-quality optics and a camera system. She will be able to take photographs of the images seen through the microscope to document the work’s condition.
Conservators will also employ several imaging techniques to view the work under various types of light. Ultraviolet fluorescent light, says O’Connell, “is a great way to see past conservation layers, such as varnishes, and in-painting” — the paint that previous conservators have added to the picture. X-ray fluorescence will provide information about the composition of the pigments Gainsborough used in different parts of the painting, so researchers can learn more about his materials and techniques.
“He applied his paints with a lot of quick, energetic brushstrokes,” explains O’Connell, “and there are a lot of layers and there’s more than one blue pigment there.”
Conservators will also use digital x-radiography to not only look at every layer of the painting but also examine the bar on which the canvas is stretched, the labels attached to the back of the picture and other features.
“The field of conservation has evolved over time … We treat the entire object as an artifact. Everything’s a part of its history. We examine everything,” says O’Connell.
Infrared radiography, another imaging technique, will enable researchers to see what is underneath the layers of paint. Previous x-rays have determined that Gainsborough began to paint a man’s portrait on the canvas, but he abandoned this work and used the same canvas to create “The Blue Boy.”
Melinda McCurdy, Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of “Project Blue Boy,” said new images of the lost work could provide additional information about Gainsborough’s career and other portraits painted in the 1760s and 1770s.
Gainsborough painted “The Blue Boy” around 1770. Like other 18th-century British artists, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney, he painted portraits of British aristocrats. Upper-class Brits commissioned these portraits to demonstrate their wealth and social status.
“Gainsborough is considered by some to be the best portrait painter of the era,” says McCurdy. His work stands out among his contemporaries for his ability to capture the likenesses of his subjects and his use of color, she adds.
Art historians have been unable to confirm the identity of “The Blue Boy.” For many years they believed the picture was a portrait of Jonathan Buttall, the work’s first owner. But McCurdy says an English scholar is working on another theory.
One thing is certain: “The Blue Boy” was heavily influenced by the work of Anthony van Dyck, a 17th-century Flemish painter who lived in England when he was court painter to King Charles I. “Gainsborough was the successor to van Dyck,” says McCurdy. “‘The Blue Boy’ is wearing a van Dyck-era costume, a masquerade costume that was 100 years out of time.”
“The Blue Boy” was well-known in Great Britain before it was purchased by Henry Huntington. “This was due to the fact that, over the course of the 19th century, it had been publicly exhibited in England a number of times and … began to be reproduced on popular culture items. … And when it was sold and came to America, the dealer [Joseph Duveen] who sold it to Mr. Huntington made sure to get the news out in the papers,” says McCurdy. A master publicist, Duveen also placed the work on limited-engagement display before Huntington took possession of it.
The painting, McCurdy adds, “stayed in the public eye” because it was reproduced on shot glasses, ash trays and other objects. Many people purchased reproductions of the work and hung it in their homes. McCurdy remembers seeing a reproduction in her grandmother’s bedroom and thinking the work was “absolutely exquisite.”
“The Blue Boy” will be returned to its place at the Thornton Gallery in November. But conservators will continue to study data from their analysis to determine how best to stabilize the flaking paint, remove discolored varnish and direct, add new paint to the original work, and perform the other tasks that will take place during “Project Blue Boy.”
“We will scrub off the many layers of varnish placed on the painting so we can see what Gainsborough intended it to look like,” says McCurdy.