After a nearly three-year restoration effort, “The Blue Boy,” one of the most prized exhibits at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, will return to public display next month.
“`The Blue Boy’ has been a star of The Huntington’s collections since we opened as the first old masters museum in Los Angeles in 1928, when visitors flocked to see this magnificent work of 18th-century British portraiture,” Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence said in a statement. “Now the painting is again the center of a joyous occasion, as we celebrate the completion of a robust and thoughtful conservation project.”
The painting will go back on public view March 26 in the Thornton Portrait Gallery.
The restoration effort, dubbed “Project Blue Boy,” began in August of 2017. The work by British artist Thomas Gainsborough, painted in roughly 1770, was fully removed from public view for about a year. But from September 2018 to September 2019, museum visitors were given the chance to watch as the restoration work was done on the painting.
More than 217,000 visitors got a glimpse of the effort during that time.
“A well-attended exhibition showcasing the conservator at work, more than 100 public talks and the convening of experts in the field all helped to define `Project Blue Boy’ as an ambitious and successful project with an educational focus,” Lawrence said.
The masterpiece — a lifesize image of a young man in a blue satin suit — was purchased by The Huntington’s founder, railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington, in 1921 for $728,800, a record price for a painting at the time.
Before bringing the British treasure to San Marino, art dealer Joseph Duveen organized an international publicity campaign that made the painting more famous than ever. It was the art centerpiece of the museum when it opened in 1928, a year after Huntington died, and has remained so. The iconic painting’s first owner, aristocrat Jonathan Buttall (1752-1805), was once thought to be the model for the painting, but the identity of the famed work’s subject remains unknown.
Huntington officials said the painting had been on almost constant display since the museum opened, necessitating the restoration project.
According to the museum, the effort involved “more than 500 hours of expert conservation work to remove old overpaint and varnish, repair and reattach the lining and other structural materials, and inpaint areas of loss as a result of flaking and abrasion.”
Museum officials said the restoration included the removal of “several uneven layers of dirt and discolored varnish,” revealing the painting’s “original brilliant blues and other pigments.”
“Then, with tiny brushes, the artist’s brushstrokes were reconnected across the voids of past damage as part of the inpainting process,” according to the museum.
The result includes more defined shades of color, brushstroke textures and “nuanced details’ of both the portrait’s subject, his clothing and the surrounding landscape, returning the masterwork “closer to what Gainsborough intended.”