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15 Things You Might Not Know About The Blue Boy

The Blue Boy has been using his defiant stare and unique fashion sense to transfix viewers for centuries. But even art fans may not know that the story of Thomas Gainsborough’s most iconic work is nearly as rich as the fabric of his subject’s blue britches.

1. THE BLUE BOY WAS AN HOMAGE TO SIR ANTHONY VAN DYCK.

In painting The Blue Boy at some point around 1770, Gainsborough borrowed more than the regal-yet-relaxed look that the 17th century Flemish painter achieved in his portraits. He also pulled his costume inspiration from Van Dyck's Portrait of Charles, Lord Strange

2. THE BLUE BOY WAS NO ROYAL.

Art historians debated the identity of this posh-looking lad for centuries. Today’s scholars believe him to be Jonathan Buttall, the young son of an affluent hardware merchant who had befriended Gainsborough. 

3. THE BOY MIGHT BE BLUE OUT OF SPITE. 

Gainsborough had a heated rivalry with his portrait-painting peer Sir Joshua Reynolds. Some art historians have suggested that The Blue Boy was conceived as a glorious means of refuting Reynold's declarations on color. Specifically, Reynolds believed: 

"It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colours; and for this purpose, a small proportion of cold colour will be sufficient." 

4. IT WASN'T THE FIRST PAINTING GAINSBOROUGH PUT ON THIS CANVAS.

In 1939, an X-ray was taken of the painting that revealed the canvas had once been an incomplete painting of an older man, before it was cut down and repainted with the boy. But that’s not the only X-ray surprise—in 1995, it was discovered that Gainsborough had originally painted a dog to go alongside the boy. But it got covered up by a pile of rocks, possibly because, in the words of curator Shelley Bennett, “maybe Gainsborough thought all that fluff fought with the boy's hat." 

5. THE BLUE BOY DREW RAVE REVIEWS.

Gainsborough had high hopes for the piece's reception when it debuted in 1770 at the Royal Academy, a prestigious venue that had only opened a year before. He was not disappointed. The incredible play of color and thoughtful brush strokes of The Blue Boy made it an instantly adored hit. 

6. GAINSBOROUGH PREFERRED TO PAINT LANDSCAPES.

Though he is remembered for portraits like The Blue Boy, Gainsborough famously declared (in the third person), "He painted portraits for money, and landscapes because he loved them.” 

7. THE BLUE BOY WAS A KEY INSPIRATION TO EARLY FILM DIRECTOR F.W. MURNAU.

The German director is best known for his 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu, but in 1919, Murnau made his directorial debut with Der Knabe in Blau, or The Boy in Blue. Only a few frames of the film remain today, but among them is a shot of a boy who seems to have stepped straight out of Gainsborough's masterpiece.

8. THE BLUE BOY INFLUENCED DJANGO UNCHAINED.

In the 2012 Quentin Tarantino western, the titular anti-hero doles out bloody vengeance draped in a bright blue suit that looks eerily similar to the one in Gainsborough's famous work. Costume designer Sharen Davis confirmed this inspiration, telling Vanity Fair, "Quentin had it in the script as powder blue. And I said, 'I just can’t do that. It is very '70s, but that’s going to look like polyester no matter what I make it out of.' I slipped a copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy in the back of the research book. He didn’t say anything, but he saw it. He sort of said later, 'Oh! Make him look like Blue Boy.'"

9. THE PIECE IS QUITE LARGE.

The Blue Boy is essentially life-sized, measuring in 70.0 by 44.1 inches. 

10. THE BLUE BOY'S MODEL OWNED THE PIECE FOR A BIT.

Although the Blue Boy himself owned the painting at one point, in 1796 a desperate Buttall declared bankruptcy and sold the unique portrait to politician John Nesbitt. By 1802, the work had been passed on to acclaimed portrait artist John Hoppner before being sold to the Earl Grosvenor in 1809. It remained with the Earl's family for more than a century. 

11. THE PAINTING'S FAME GREW THROUGH REPRODUCTIONS.

Exhibitions at the British Institution and the Royal Academy won the painting further critical acclaim, while prints of the piece made it popular with the masses. By the early 1920s, The Blue Boy was a gem in England's artistic crown. 

12. ITS SALE WAS RECORD-BREAKING AND HEARTBREAKING FOR ENGLAND.

Thanks to this growing esteem, The Blue Boy’s 1921 sale to American railroad tycoon Henry Edwards Huntington caused a massive outcry among the English, who were horrified that The Blue Boy should leave his homeland. Though the exact sales figure is a matter of debate, Encyclopaedia Britannica pegs it at roughly $700,000 (or about $9.3 million today), which made it the second most expensive painting in the world, behind Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna and Child.

13. ENGLAND GRIEVED WITH ONE LAST DISPLAY ... AND A BIT OF VANDALISM.

Before The Blue Boy departed for the U.S., the National Gallery displayed it one last time, drawing an astounding 90,000 people. The Gallery's director, Charles Holmes, was so overcome by the loss that he wrote his own farewell to the piece on its back, which read, "Au Revoir, C.H.

14. IT HAS REMAINED IN AMERICAN HANDS EVER SINCE.

Today The Blue Boy is the pride and joy of the art collection at the Huntington Library in California. 

15. THE BLUE BOY FOUND ITS MATE IN CALIFORNIA.

Sharing the spotlight at the center of the Huntington Library's collection is Pinkie, a portrait of a sweet young girl in a pink dress and bonnet painted by English portraitist Thomas Lawrence. Twenty-four years the junior of Gainsborough's painting, the piece hangs across from The Blue Boy, giving the effect that the two young subjects stare—perhaps longingly—at each other.

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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