Gainsborough’s Blue Boy opens at the National Gallery on the 100th anniversary of its last presentation in the UK

On the centenary of its last public appearance in the UK, ‘The Blue Boy’ by Thomas Gainsborough will return to the National Gallery. ‘The Blue Boy’ is an exceptional loan; it has never been lent since its departure from the UK – until now – and it is unlikely to ever be lent again. This exhibition opens 100 years to the day since ‘The Blue Boy’ was last seen in the country, reuniting a British icon with the British public.

In 1921, the news that ‘The Blue Boy’ was to depart permanently for the United States after being purchased by rail and property businessman Henry E. Huntington elicited an emotional public response. The National Gallery’s then Director Charles Holmes wrote ‘au revoir’ on the painting’s reverse, in the hope that the painting would return one day. Now that dream is coming true as the painting is being generously lent to the Gallery for an exceptional free exhibition.

Image: Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, 1770, Oil on canvas, 179.4 × 123.8 cm. Huntington Art Museum, San Marino, California (21.1) © Courtesy of the Huntington Art Museum, San Marino, California

The work is now owned by the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California where it has been on display for the past century. The popularity of the painting has made it an icon, indicated by contemporary artists – including Kehinde Wiley (who is exhibiting at the National Gallery at the same time) – as having an outsized influence on their practice, and referenced in Hollywood films.

This spectacular, enigmatic, full-length portrait was created during Gainsborough’s time in Bath (1759–74), a period when the artist’s style and practice changed dramatically in response to his patrons’ tastes and expectations. He did not travel abroad, but instead benefitted from studying and copying the works of past masters in prestigious collections, particularly those by the Flemish artist Sir Anthony van Dyck , working some 100 years earlier.

The free exhibition in Room 46 will see ‘The Blue Boy’ shown alongside a select group of paintings that demonstrate Gainsborough’s ongoing interest in Van Dyck’s paintings, particularly in regard to colour and composition. Van Dyck popularised the ‘grand manner’ of full-length portraiture in Britain, and by the 18th century, he epitomised the height of artistic achievement: a ‘celebrity’ painter honoured by the royal family and known for his extraordinary ability. He was also popular among Gainsborough’s patrons, who often donned ‘Van Dyck’ costume, like the sitter in ‘The Blue Boy’, to pose for portraits. Gainsborough aspired to such a reputation and sought to understand Van Dyck’s painterly technique, making several copies after the earlier artist’s work. By referencing Van Dyck, Gainsborough deliberately established himself in this great lineage of European artists.

The five works included in the exhibition are: ‘George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Lord Francis Villiers’ (1635, Her Majesty the Queen) and Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart, (about 1638, the National Gallery, London) by Sir Anthony van Dyck; as well as ‘The Blue Boy’ (about 1770, collection of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens); ‘Elizabeth and Mary Linley’ (about 1772, retouched 1785, Dulwich Picture Gallery); and Mrs Siddons (1785, the National Gallery, London) by Thomas Gainsborough.

This display will reunite ‘The Blue Boy’ with the National Gallery’s collection, connecting it to a rich survey of grand manner painting that traces the tradition from the Renaissance through Van Dyck to Gainsborough and beyond. Since its foundation in 1824, the National Gallery has been a home to artists who study the past to create art for the present. The momentous display of ‘The Blue Boy’ reminds us of the connections between past and present, as well as the timeless humanity of Gainsborough’s portraiture.

Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, London says ‘The loan of Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’ to the National Gallery is truly exceptional and a unique opportunity for visitors to see Gainsborough at his dazzling best. Rich in historical resonances, a painting of supreme poise and elegance, ‘The Blue Boy’ is without doubt a masterpiece of British art.’

Karen R. Lawrence, Huntington President comments ‘This masterpiece has made an indelible mark on both art history and popular culture, capturing the imaginations of a wide range of audiences. Given ‘The Blue Boy’s’ iconic status at The Huntington, this is an unprecedented loan, one which we considered very carefully. We hope that this partnership with the National Gallery will spark new conversations, appreciation, and research on both sides of the Atlantic.’

The art will be on display 25 January – 15 May 2022
Room 46
Admission free