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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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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Custom-Design the Ugly Christmas Sweater of Your Dreams (or Nightmares)
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For those of you aspiring to be the worst dressed person at your family's holiday dinner, UglyChristmasSweater.com sells—you guessed it—ugly Christmas sweaters to seasonal revelers possessing a sense of irony. But the Michigan-based online retailer has elevated kitsch to new heights by offering a create-your-own-sweater tool on its website.

Simply visit the site's homepage, and click on the Sweater Customizer link. There, you'll be provided with a basic sweater template, which you can decorate with festive snowflakes, reindeer, and other designs in five different colors. If you're feeling really creative, you can even upload photos, logos, hand-drawn pictures, and/or text. After you approve and purchase a mock-up of the final design, you can purchase the final result (prices start at under $70). But you'd better act quickly: due to high demand, orders will take about two weeks plus shipping time to arrive.

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