Visitors can witness art conservation in action in Project Blue Boy

For decades, the handsome young boy with rosy red cheeks decked out in a fashionable blue satin outfit with knee breeches has delighted guests in the Thornton Portrait Gallery at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Painted around 1770 by prominent English landscape and portrait artist Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy has an endearing charm reflected in a careful composition that reveals the master’s fine strokes, using a shimmering blue hue created with numerous tints.

Now visitors will have a different view of the relaxed young lad as he poses in the English countryside — a close-up so extreme it can be microscopic. The Huntington’s new show Project Blue Boy offers gallery visitors a behind-the-scenes experience of the extensive two-year-long conservation process that will restore and stabilize Gainsborough’s classic work as much as possible.

This is the first time the Huntington is putting a conservation project on display for the public to observe; it’s a rare opportunity to witness both the art and science of conservation in action. “We’ve known for a while that the painting needed attention,” explains Melinda McCurdy, exhibit cocurator and associate curator for British art. The original colors have turned hazy and dull. Paint is starting to lift and flake off in certain areas. Too many layers of added varnish have served as temporary bandages to keep the almost life-size painting intact. Likewise, the painting’s lining (added as another
attempt at restoration) has been separating. The Blue Boy needed a serious tune-up.

Earlier this year, the painting was subjected to a three-month-long examination. High-tech methods — infrared reflectography, ultraviolet illumination and a scanning electron microscope — helped conservators chart a course of action.

At the helm of Project Blue Boy is Christina O’Connell, the Huntington’s senior painting conservator and exhibit’s other cocurator. She has set up shop in the Thornton Portrait Gallery inside a special satellite studio, complete with work table, easel, conservation lights and exhaust units. A half wall separates her from the crowds, but the public can watch on a display monitor as she performs the deft and precise work of stabilizing the paint, cleaning the surface and removing the non-original varnish and overpaint. (Her satellite work schedule will be posted on the Huntington website.)

The plan is for O’Connell to work three to four months in the satellite studio. The Blue Boy will then go off view for another three to four months while she strengthens the canvas structure and applies new varnish with special equipment that can’t be moved into the gallery. After that’s completed, the painting will once again return to the satellite studio where visitors can continue to watch as O’Connell takes the artwork closer to perfection in anticipation of The Blue Boy’s return to gallery walls in early 2020.

Among the paraphernalia in O’Connell’s toolbox is an impressive 6-foot-tall surgical microscope. This state-of-the-art device has a long moveable arm and optics that can magnify up to 25 times; especially helpful when she applies special adhesives to areas where paint is lifting off the canvas. 

Near the satellite studio, there’s an educational exhibit with an iPad describing the science of conservation and a display of typical conservator hand tools; they’re on hand to help guests gain a deeper appreciation for the conservator’s skilled artistry.

Visitors will also be able to see what lurks underneath The Blue Boy; an interactive light box will show digital x-rays of the artwork, revealing that the it was painted on a used canvas: The artist had originally begun a portrait of a man, before opting for a younger model. McCurdy hopes the current conservation process may unearth more clues to the earlier model’s identity. Perhaps just as interesting is that other x-rays show that at one time Gainsborough placed a small white dog next to the boy’s bowed shoes. For whatever reason, the hound didn’t make the cut and was eventually transformed into a pile of rocks.

Information will be posted on the artist and painting, which has called San Marino home since Henry Huntington purchased it in 1921 for a whopping $728,000 — the largest sum paid at that time for any artwork. “The Blue Boy is iconic for a reason… it’s a really good painting,” McCurdy says, adding that it is as much a study of the look and feel of period apparel as it is a character study of its young subject.

Look closely at the intricate details of the clothes, she says. “Gainsborough’s great skill was as a master painter, using vigorous slashes of unmodulated color to mimic the look and texture of smooth satin in the boy’s costume, for instance.” The illustrious costume was inspired by the work of 17th-century Flemish painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who often incorporated fashion in his work. (Note the blue coat worn by the young subject of Portrait of Charles, Lord Strange.)

While his portraits are masterful in capturing the essence of their models, Gainsborough preferred the peaceful beauty of landscapes. He once said, in third person: “He painted portraits for money and landscapes because he loved them.”

There remains a lure of unsolved mystery surrounding The Blue Boy. As famous as it was back then and is today, no one knows for sure just who this fair-faced boy was. Many art historians originally thought it was a portrait of a younger Jonathan Buttall, the painting’s first owner. “There is no documentary evidence to support that,” explains McCurdy.

Susan Sloman, a London-based art historian, thinks she might have unraveled the mystery. “She proposes that the model for The Blue Boy is Gainsborough Dupont, Thomas Gainsborough’s nephew, who lived with the artist’s family and later served as his uncle’s studio assistant,” she says. This young, readily available model could have been in the right place at the right time — never imagining that his likeness would live on forever the world over.

Originally titled A Portrait of a Young Gentleman, the painting received high acclaim from fellow artists when it first appeared in public in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770. Somewhere along the line, its nickname, The Blue Boy, seemed more appropriate and became its official name. Fame grew for The Blue Boy; for years, the painting traveled around Great Britain, endearing itself to the masses, and public outcry in Britain was loud when Henry Huntington (an American!) acquired the British treasure. Huntington wanted to show off his prize and enlisted art dealer Joseph Duveen to stage an international publicity blitz around the painting’s journey from London to Los Angeles. It was briefly put on display at the National Gallery of Art in London where it was viewed by 90,000 people. “They really hyped it up,” says McCurdy. “These limited engagement exhibitions and newspaper articles really transformed The Blue Boy into a well-known and recognizable icon of the times.” 

It wasn’t until the late 1920s that The Blue Boy was introduced to another icon-to-be, one that would be forever visually associated with the Gainsborough masterpiece. In 1926, Huntington purchased Pinkie (1794) painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The young girl dramatically posing on a high cliff, a breeze jostling her dress and pink hat ribbons, became The Blue Boy’s eternal partner on the Huntington Art Gallery’s walls and in our culture’s collective consciousness. A bit of irony: There is neither historical nor costume connection between them. No matter; they have been the Huntington’s power couple for decades, a visitor favorite and tourist must-see.

But for now, guests will have to wait for their reunion as The Blue Boy’s imperfections and cracks vanish, his colors are revitalized and the magic of conservation is complete — a signal that the young man in his glistening smooth blue costume is ready to resume his rightful place on gallery walls.

Christina O’Connell, senior painting conservator, works in public view Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 4 p.m.; she also appears the first Sunday of each month from 2 to 4 p.m. through January. Visit the website for details about the second in-gallery session next year. The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino. Visit huntington.org.