By May S. Ruiz
Created by English landscape and portrait painter Thomas Gainsborough around 1770, ‘The Blue Boy’ occupies a place of honor at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Garden’s Thornton Portrait Gallery and is seen by about 800,000 people annually. After an 18-month restoration project, it has been rehung and will be available for viewing when it’s safe for the museum to reopen. And when we do get the chance to visit again, we’ll fully appreciate why the painting gained the moniker.
‘Project Blue Boy’ began in 2017 when conservators carried out a preliminary analysis of the painting. It was examined and documented using a range of imaging techniques that allowed Christina O’Connell, senior paintings conservator, and Dr. Melinda McCurdy, associate curator of British art, to see beyond the surface with wavelengths the human eye can’t see. Infrared reflectography rendered some paints transparent, making it possible to see preparatory lines or changes the artist made. Through ultraviolet illumination, they were able to examine and document the previous layers of varnish and old overpaints.
Their findings determined what needed to be done and how it was going to be accomplished – ‘The Blue Boy’ required conservation to address both structural and visual concerns. “Earlier conservation treatments mainly have involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep it on view as much as possible,” O’Connell declared at the start of the project. “The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured.”
According to O’Connell, there were also several areas where the paint was beginning to lift and flake, making the work vulnerable to paint loss and permanent damage; and the adhesion between the painting and its lining was separating, meaning it did not have adequate support for long-term display.
New images of the back of the painting were taken to document what appeared to be an original stretcher (the wooden support to which the canvas is fastened) as well as old labels and inscriptions that told more of the painting’s story. Furthermore, minute samples from the technical study and from previous analysis by experts were studied at high magnification (200-400x) with techniques including scanning electron microscopy with which conservators could scrutinize specific layers and pigments within the paint.
The undertaking uncovered new information of interest to art historians as well. During preliminary analysis, conservators found an L-shaped tear more than 11 inches in length which, data suggest, was made early in the painting’s history. The damage may have occurred during the 19th century when the painting was in the collection of the Duke of Westminster and exhibited frequently.
It was decided early on that this conservation project was going to be different from what they had undertaken before – it would have an educational component and involve the community. The Huntington partnered with Bank of America’s Art Conservation Program to finance the massive undertaking.
For the first time in its history, The Huntington held a year-long exhibition from September 2018 to September 2019 showcasing the project in progress – the capstone of its centennial celebration. During the first three months, ‘The Blue Boy’ was on public view in a special satellite conservation studio set up in the west end of the Thornton Portrait Gallery, where O’Connell worked on the painting to continue examination and analysis, and began paint stabilization, surface cleaning, and removal of non-original varnish and overpaint.
It went off view from February through June when O’Connell performed structural work on the canvas and applied varnish with equipment that couldn’t be moved to the gallery space. ‘The Blue Boy’ then returned to the gallery where visitors witnessed the in-painting process until the close of the exhibition.
The final phase – held off view from October 2019 to March 2020 – involved in-painting, varnishing, supportive backing, and adjusting the framing.
A stabilized and restored painting was scheduled to be back at the Thornton Portrait Gallery in the spring, but the pandemic delayed the public unveiling until Thursday, Sept. 10. To help get the word out, The Huntington held a virtual press briefing. In conjunction with the event, Dr. McCurdy and O’Connell agree to be interviewed by email.
I ask if they were able to find the answers to questions they had when they embarked on the project: What technical means did Gainsborough use to achieve his spectacular visual effects? Did he develop special pigments, create new materials, pioneer new techniques?
O’Connell replies, “We’re still waiting on some data from our samples and we hope to have more information soon. What we do know is that Gainsborough used a complex mixture of many different pigments together to make his colors. He also used many layers of opaque and transparent paint to create different visual effects. Now that the painting has been cleaned, we can see nuances of his brushstrokes that were obscured under the discolored/cloudy varnish. We can appreciate his technique from the fluid and fast strokes he applied to the sky and landscape to the more complex network of paint strokes that comprise the figure of the boy.
What might new technologies tell us about this earlier abandoned portrait? Where does this lost painting fit into his career? How does it compare with other earlier portraits by Gainsborough? Will there be other evidence that may become visible beneath the surface paint, and what it might indicate about Gainsborough’s painting practice?
“The digital x-ray gave us a clearer picture of the abandoned painting than we had previously,” answers Dr. McCurdy. “We were able to capture more of figure’s face, including his eyes, which we had never seen before. That was an exciting discovery. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough information for us to identify the sitter or to suggest a specific date range for the portrait.”
Adds O’Connell, “As Melinda indicated, we learned a lot from the x-rays. We also used infrared reflectography (IRR) to see through some of the layers of paint (X-rays go through all the layers). With IRR, we could confirm that Gainsborough didn’t take that previous portrait very far – he only captured the likeness of the sitter and painted very preliminary outlines for the figure’s shoulders. I’d like to point out that there isn’t one analytical technique that provides all the answers, we have to study the painting with many different forms of technology to get different pieces of information.
Did you discover other evidence beneath the surface paint and what did it indicate about the artist’s painting process?
“We used some techniques of analysis that hadn’t previously been used to study the painting,” says O’Connell. “One of those techniques is infrared reflectography (IRR). With this analysis, we can see what is beneath some of the paint layers and it’s a useful technique for examining the preparatory layers or sketches an artist applied under the paint. For Blue Boy, we can see preparatory lines that establish the bold pose of the figure from the very beginning stages.
I ask if there were other revelations they hadn’t expected to unearth and Dr. McCurdy responds, “We hadn’t expected to find that the painting had suffered a major damage in the past. The canvas had been torn, but it had been repaired so well that it hadn’t shown up in previous x-rays.”
Continues O’Connell, “Discovering the tear helped us understand the reason why the painting was lined. There was a large damage that needed repair.”
“How does this restoration project compare with others you have done before?” I inquire.
“The condition issues for Blue Boy were not surprising for a painting from the 18th century,” O’Connell discloses. “Each treatment is slightly unique and a conservator has to take into account the original materials and how they’ve aged over time, but also the past treatments and restorations. Each project is a unique case study and that’s one of the things I love about the field.”
Painting restoration doesn’t sound like a thrilling project for the average person who isn’t knowledgeable about art, so I ask what we should find exciting to know. I tell them I was shocked to learn that Gainsborough had painted over something – it seems sacrilegious – but I imagine it was a common practice among artists.
Dr. McCurdy explains, “It is not that uncommon to find another painting beneath the surface composition. There are many reasons an artist might decide to paint over something else – maybe the composition didn’t work out the way s/he wanted? Maybe a client did not pay? Materials are expensive, so it could also happen for cost-saving reasons. In this case, we know that Gainsborough didn’t paint Blue Boy as a commissioned work, so he wasn’t being paid for it. It made financial sense to re-use a canvas he already had.”
“Sharing the treatment process with our visitors created another avenue for them to learn about and see Blue Boy in a new way,” O’Connell expounds. “Visitors were extremely fascinated to learn about all the layers that comprise the painting (there are 8-9 and you wouldn’t know that just from looking at the surface). Some visitors are drawn to learning more about Gainsborough’s technique and others were drawn to the process of conservation. Some were interested to see the forensic side of the technical investigation. The focus on research and education (part of The Huntington’s mission) really meant that this project had something for everyone.
“I have many memories from visitors coming to the gallery, but one that stands out was a day when I had a detailed discussion with an artist and a polymer chemist from JPL about varnishes. They both had a different reason for asking their questions and a different experience and understanding of varnish, but everyone was engaged.”
Please share your thoughts about what you, personally, learned as you did this project, I ask.
Dr. McCurdy states, “In watching Christina uncover Gainsborough’s original palette from beneath layers of dirt and discolored varnish and overpaint, it was remarkable to see this painting that everyone knows through cheap reproductions be revealed as a truly compelling work of art. Now, we get a better sense of the relationship between the figure and the landscape, we are better able to see the complexity of Gainsborough’s brushwork, and the true colors of the figure’s blue costume. Due to the discoloration, it had appeared slightly green-ish. That effect is now gone, and it is brilliant blue again. It must have been striking to audiences who first saw it in 1770.”
“Conservation is very much a process of discovery,” concurs O’Connell. “I spent a lot of time looking at the surface of Blue Boy while setting tiny flakes of paint back into place and during the cleaning process where, inch by inch, I saw the original surface emerge from underneath many layers of degraded and cloudy varnish. Each treatment has unique problems to solve and decision-making as part of the process, so there’s an opportunity for learning with each treatment.”
Lastly, I inquire if there’s something that they would like to add. And Dr. McCurdy divulges, “For me, the fact that The Huntington decided to do this conservation work on public view was important. Of course, this is a beloved painting to many of our visitors, and we knew we needed to keep it on display as much as possible, but the most exciting thing was the way the project engaged visitors with the role museums play in preserving cultural heritage. There were times when the crowd of visitors around the satellite conservation lab in the Thornton Portrait Gallery was several deep. People were excited to learn more about this painting and to see the conservation work unfold in front of them.”
‘The Blue Boy’ has a storied provenance. Thomas Gainsborough was among the most prominent artists of his day. Though he preferred to paint landscapes, he built a flourishing career as portraitist to the British aristocracy whom he depicted at their leisure. However, ‘The Blue Boy’ wasn’t a commissioned work but was done to show off his skill at the Royal Academy. Later circulated accounts that Gainsborough did it to disprove another painter’s belief about the use of the color blue were dispelled by The Huntington’s curators as apocryphal and were made after his death. The model was believed to be Jonathan Buttall (1752–1805), the son of a wealthy merchant and who was also the first owner of the painting, but his identity remains unconfirmed.
Anthony van Dyck, the 17th century Flemish painter, was a major influence in British art and Gainsborough’s Blue Boy’ appears to be an homage to him. Instead of dressing the figure in the elegant finery worn by most sitters at the time, Gainsborough chose knee breeches and a slashed doublet with a lace collar – inspired by van Dyck’s ‘Portrait of Charles, Lord Strange.’ It made its debut at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770 as ‘A Portrait of a Young Gentleman,’ where it received high acclaim. By 1798 it was being called ‘The Blue Boy.’
When Henry and Arabella Huntington purchased ‘The Blue Boy’ in 1921, it was already being hailed as Gainsborough’s greatest work and a national treasure. His image was on print reproductions, even on chocolate tin containers. It was no surprise then that the sale of the painting to an American caused an enormous protest in its homeland. The National Gallery displayed it one last time before it left for California and reportedly drew 90,000 people.
But they needn’t have lamented – ‘The Blue Boy’ is as beloved and treasured at his home of 99 years. As Christina Nielsen, The Huntington’s Hannah and Russell Kully Director of the Art Collections, pronounced during the press briefing, “We hold him in trust not only for this generation but for future generations.”
The boy wearing a dazzling blue outfit and defiant demeanor once more stands confident at The Huntington’s Thornton Portrait Gallery where he will continue to beguile hundreds of thousands of admirers into the next century.