by Alexandra Tuschka
Dozens of times this work has been copied, satirized, quoted. Already in 1770, at his first exhibition, "the blue boy" was celebrated. Gainsborough thus consolidated his status as a great painter. He wanted to submit the work to the Royal Academy and strengthen his reputation in London.
Today the boy is identified as Jonathan Butall, the son of a wealthy ironmonger. The latter became a good friend of the painter and later even acted as a grave bearer at his funeral. He has removed an expansive black hat from his head. Here he coquettishly props his arm at his side and seems to say: Well, what do you want from me? The clothing does not correspond to the fashion of the 18th century, but rather to the 17th century, and is thus to be understood as a study. Possibly the composition originates from the great Dutchman Anthonis van Dyck, who made a child portrait of Charles II more than 100 years earlier.
Presumably, the work was not a commission. The canvas the painter used for it had already been used once.
The young painter preferred landscape painting to portraiture, but turned to this subject as well for economic reasons. This portrait is in the middle of this conflict : the painter called this "a landscape portrait". The boy is depicted in almost real height and is designed for long-distance viewing. An anecdote reports that Gainsborough once told a visitor who stood too close to the canvas that this was not made to be smelled.
Thomas Gainsborough - The Blue Boy
Oil on canvas, c. 1770, 179 x 123 cm, Huntington Art Collection in San Marino