Saturday, February 6, 2016

MWA XXXVIII: Gainsborough's Boy

The picture you see here is one of those images that has been reproduced so many times that you know it instantly, even if you aren't sure who it is or who painted it. This is Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy, painted in 1770, from the The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. I have never seen this picture in person, because I have never been to this institution--yet! But like anyone who has seen it I have always been fascinated by the boy's overtly confident, almost cocky, facial expression and pose, and the vibrancy and bravura of the blue garments that Gainsborough painted. I chose this work for February's Monthly Work of Art because I recently read Martin Postle's short book on Gainsborough. Rather than do my own interpretation of this painting, then, here are the words of specialists who know much more about this than I do.

This painting "was Gainsborough’s first attempt at full length Van Dyck dress--knee breeches and a slashed doublet with a lace collar--which is based on the work of Anthony van Dyck, the 17th-century Flemish painter who had revolutionized British art. ... Though clearly indebted to Van Dyck, Gainsborough’s painting technique was entirely his own. Whereas Van Dyck applied color in discrete patches composed of short consecutive strokes, Gainsborough presents a chaos of erratic color and brushstrokes. The shimmering blue satin is rendered in a spectrum of minutely calibrated tints--indigo, lapis, cobalt, slate, turquoise, charcoal, and cream--that have been applied in extremely complex layers of vigorous slashes and fine strokes. At the proper distance, the diverse pigments crystallize into an illusion of solidity." (online catalogue entry)

"The Blue Boy is Gainsborough's most famous picture, and his most enigmatic. Through its elevation to iconic status in the twentieth century this picture, more than any other, has served to promote the artist's image as a romantic painter of chocolate-box cavaliers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The painting is a parody. The boy in question was not the offspring of an aristocrat but the teenage son of a prosperous Soho ironmonger, and a person friend of the artist. His costume was a popular form of fancy dress which ... was otherwise restricted to the ephemeral realm of the masquerade, then a popular form of entertainment in the capital. ... X-rays have revealed that Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy upon a discarded, cut-down canvas, which further suggests that this was not a straight-forward portrait commission but an impromptu jeu d'esprit." -- Martin Postle, Thomas Gainsborough (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002), 46.

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