“The Blue Boy,” one of the most prized exhibits at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, will be taken off public display Tuesday to undergo its first major technical examination and conservation treatment.
The masterpiece — a lifesize image of a young man in a blue satin suit created around 1770 by British artist Thomas Gainsborough — will be removed from public view until Nov. 1 for a preliminary conservation analysis.
Much of the two-year effort, dubbed “Project Blue Boy,” will be conducted in public view during a yearlong exhibition, beginning in September 2018, in The Huntington’s Portrait Gallery, where the painting traditionally hangs.
“We are profoundly conscious of our duty of care toward this unique and remarkable treasure,” said Steve Hindle, The Huntington’s interim president and W.M. Keck Foundation director of research. “`The Blue Boy’ has been the most beloved work of art at The Huntington since it opened its doors in 1928.”
The museum’s founder, railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington, bought “The Blue Boy” 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.
According to The Huntington, the painting has been on almost constant display since The Huntington opened to the public nearly 100 years ago and requires conservation to address both structural and visual concerns.
“The most recent conservation treatments have mainly involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep `The Blue Boy’ on view as much as possible,” said Christina O’Connell, senior paintings conservator and co-curator of the exhibition. “The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured.”
O’Connell said there are also several areas where the paint is beginning to lift and flake, making the painting vulnerable to permanent damage. Also, she said, the adhesive that binds the canvas to its lining is failing, and will be shored up to give the painting adequate support for continued long-term display.
—City News Service