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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
travel
Win a Trip to Any National Park By Instagramming Your Travels
iStock
iStock

If you're planning out your summer vacation, make sure to add a few national parks to your itinerary. Every time you share your travels on Instagram, you can increase your chances of winning a VIP trip for two to the national park of your choice.

The National Park Foundation is hosting its "Pic Your Park" sweepstakes now through September 28. To participate, post your selfies from visits to National Park System (NPS) properties on Instagram using the hashtag #PicYourParkContest and a geotag of the location. Making the trek to multiple parks increases your points, with less-visited parks in the system having the highest value. During certain months, the point values of some sites are doubled. You can find a list of participating properties and a schedule of boost periods here.

Following the contest run, the National Park Foundation will decide a winner based on most points earned. The grand prize is a three-day, two-night trip for the winner and a guest to any NPS property within the contiguous U.S. Round-trip airfare and hotel lodging are included. The reward also comes with a 30-day lease of a car from Subaru, the contest's sponsor.

The contest is already underway, with a leader board on the website keeping track of the competition. If you're looking to catch up, this national parks road trip route isn't a bad place to start.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
holidays
15 Dad Facts for Father's Day
iStock
iStock

Gather 'round the grill and toast Dad for Father's Day—the national holiday so awesome that Americans have celebrated it for more than a century. Here are 15 Dad facts you can wow him with today.

1. Halsey Taylor invented the drinking fountain in 1912 as a tribute to his father, who succumbed to typhoid fever after drinking from a contaminated public water supply in 1896.

2. George Washington, the celebrated father of our country, had no children of his own. A 2004 study suggested that a type of tuberculosis that Washington contracted in childhood may have rendered him sterile. He did adopt the two children from Martha Custis's first marriage.

3. In Thailand, the king's birthday also serves as National Father's Day. The celebration includes fireworks, speeches, and acts of charity and honor—the most distinct being the donation of blood and the liberation of captive animals.

4. In 1950, after a Washington Post music critic gave Harry Truman's daughter Margaret's concert a negative review, the president came out swinging: "Some day I hope to meet you," he wrote. "When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!"

5. A.A. Milne created Winnie the Pooh for his son, Christopher Robin. Pooh was based on Robin's teddy bear, Edward, a gift Christopher had received for his first birthday, and on their father/son visits to the London Zoo, where the bear named Winnie was Christopher's favorite. Pooh comes from the name of Christopher's pet swan.

6. Kurt Vonnegut was (for a short time) Geraldo Rivera's father-in-law. Rivera's marriage to Edith Vonnegut ended in 1974 because of his womanizing. Her ever-protective father was quoted as saying, "If I see Gerry again, I'll spit in his face." He also included an unflattering character named Jerry Rivers (a chauffeur) in a few of his books.

7. Andre Agassi's father represented Iran in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics as a boxer.

8. Charlemagne, the 8th-century king of the Franks, united much of Western Europe through military campaigns and has been called the "king and father of Europe" [PDF]. Charlemagne was also a devoted dad to about 18 children, and today, most Europeans may be able to claim Charlemagne as their ancestor.

9. The voice of Papa Smurf, Don Messick, also provided the voice of Scooby-Doo, Ranger Smith on Yogi Bear, and Astro and RUDI on The Jetsons.

10. In 2001, Yuri Usachev, cosmonaut and commander of the International Space Station, received a talking picture frame from his 12-year-old daughter while in orbit. The gift was made possible by RadioShack, which filmed the presentation of the gift for a TV commercial.

11. The only father-daughter collaboration to hit the top spot on the Billboard pop music chart was the 1967 hit single "Something Stupid" by Frank & Nancy Sinatra.

12. In the underwater world of the seahorse, it's the male that gets to carry the eggs and birth the babies.

13. If show creator/producer Sherwood Schwartz had gotten his way, Gene Hackman would have portrayed the role of father Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch.

14. The Stevie Wonder song "Isn't She Lovely" is about his newborn daughter, Aisha. If you listen closely, you can hear Aisha crying during the song.

15. Dick Hoyt has pushed and pulled his son Rick, who has cerebral palsy, through hundreds of marathons and triathlons. Rick cannot speak, but using a custom-designed computer he has been able to communicate. They ran their first five-mile race together when Rick was in high school. When they were done, Rick sent his father this message: "Dad, when we were running, it felt like I wasn't disabled anymore!"

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios