Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘The Blue Boy’, considered the most famous British master painting on display in America, is back across the pond safe and sound.
The masterpiece was put on display again on Saturday and if you haven’t seen it in its newly restored glory, you really want to make time to visit the Huntington Library, the Art Museum and the Botanical Gardens of San Marino.
Traditionally paired with Thomas Lawrence’s ‘Pinkie’, ‘The Blue Boy’ has just arrived from the National Gallery in London, where it was on display between January 25 and May 3. The National Gallery was where ‘The Blue Boy’ was last exhibited for British and European audiences before Henry E. Huntington bought the masterpiece from the Duke of Westminster and brought it to California in 1922.
This year, the painting was loaned to the National Gallery to celebrate 100 years since its purchase and transport to the United States. It was the first time The Huntington had loaned the painting – and it could be the last, officials at The Huntington said.
“The Blue Boy” was exhibited at the gallery in London among a small selection of related masterpieces that connect to Gainsborough’s oeuvre and influences. In return for the loan, a work from the National Gallery’s collection was also exhibited at the Huntington.
“This masterpiece has left an indelible mark on art history and popular culture, capturing the imagination of a wide range of audiences,” President Karen R. Lawrence said last year. of the Huntington. “Given the iconic status of ‘The Blue Boy’ at the Huntington, this is an unprecedented loan, which we have reviewed very carefully.”
Art critics had opposed the loan, warning of potential structural damage to the 250-year-old canvas following the arduous journey from San Marino to London. But Huntington officials said the decision to loan ‘The Blue Boy’ was made “after several years of considerable review and discussion, and after instituting a rigorous set of protocols”.
“The long-term well-being of this iconic work has always been Huntington’s guiding principle in any discussion of the possibility of a loan,” The Huntington said in a statement issued in response to a Los Angeles Times article in July 2021 which criticized a loan.
The Huntington had convened a panel of conservators in 2018 to study the condition of the painting and recommend a conservation treatment for it. The conservation and restoration work that followed that year — called Project Blue Boy — was based primarily on committee recommendations, The Huntington said.
A second panel was convened in 2019, in particular to advise the museum on possible travel. Provided with updated information on the condition of the painting and what had been learned from the extensive conservation project, the second panel advised that the painting could be safely loaned, but should only go to one venue – an institution of the highest caliber with stellar exhibition and curatorial facilities and staff – and be transported in a state-of-the-art, custom-built crate.
Gainsborough’s iconic painting first appeared in public at the 1770 Royal Academy exhibition as ‘Portrait of a Young Gentleman’, where it was highly praised. In 1798 the painting was called “The Blue Boy” and the nickname has stuck ever since.
After Henry E. Huntington decided to purchase the masterpiece, “The Blue Boy” was exhibited in London’s Trafalgar Square in January 1922 as part of a farewell tour. During the three weeks it was on display, approximately 90,000 visitors came to see the painting before it left on a steamer for California.
For the National Gallery, this last free exhibition in London this year was a realization of what Charles Holmes, then director of the National Gallery, had scribbled on the back of the painting around 1922: “Goodbye”, hoping that the painting would one day return .
Karen Lawrence of Huntington said the masterpiece “left an indelible mark on art history and popular culture, capturing the imagination of a wide range of audiences”.
“We hope this partnership with the National Gallery will spark new conversations, appreciations and research on both sides of the Atlantic,” she said.
“The Blue Boy” will return on Saturday along with other European works of art from the 15th to early 20th centuries on display at the Huntington Art Gallery, Huntington’s original residence.
To learn more about the painting and the “Project Blue Boy” curatorial process, visit www.huntington.org/project-