Early Modern Times – the boy who blue our minds

Early Modern Times - the boy who blue our minds

Dear readers,

This month, Thomas Gainsborough’s famous painting Blue boy (c. 1770, pictured above) returned to the National Gallery after a century overseas in the possession of a collector in the US. This article by Matthew Wilson shows how the Blue boy became a gay icon in subsequent centuries. Why did Gainsborough paint it, and how was it that it blue the minds of both contemporaneous and later viewers?

Gainsborough (1727-88) gained prominence as a landscape and portrait painter in late 18th-century Britain. Originating from Suffolk, he apprenticed in London and acquired a reputation for, among other aspects, his integration of portraits (often of prominent figures) within striking landscapes. He was influenced by French Rococo styles, but also by the portraiture of 17th-century Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck. Van Dyck was official court painter for the doomed Charles I of England, whose reign and head were cut short by Parliamentary rebels. Gainsborough was impressed by the vividness and grandeur of van Dyck’s portraits. Thus in his homage to van Dyck, he wanted to show that he was no Charles-atan or por-traitor to the best traditions in Baroque painting.

The Blue boy reflects his admiration for van Dyck. Traditionally, it was thought that the sitter for the painting was Jonathan Buttall, a son of an ironmonger in London, but art historians now concur that it is likely Gainsborough Dupont, nephew of the artist. Gainsborough wanted his audience to focus not on who the sitter was, but rather the qualities of the painting itself. Although the boy may be a commoner, his resplendent blue costume, contrapposto stance, jutting elbow, and forceful gaze are meant to evoke the kind of nobility and majesty on display in van Dyck’s royal portraits. Furthermore, the striking figure of the boy in blue stands out against the moody, menacing background–perhaps an echo of the turbulent civil war surrounding van Dyck’s King Charles? As Susan Sloman has pointed out, the original canvas included an alert, woolly dog on the lower right-hand side next to his master. Gainsborough wisely omitted the loyal pet from the final version, as he wanted his boy in blue to look doggone intense.

Although Gainsborough’s intent was traditionalist, situating himself as an heir to the best of Baroque portraiture, the Blue boy took on a very different life of its own. In the 19th century, both boys and girls would be dressed up like the Blue boy in various stage pantomimes. The image of the Blue boy, according to Valerie Hedquist, blurred the lines of conventional gender norms. By the late 19th century, Oscar Wilde was photographed ‘in swanky buckled shoes and knickerbockers’ in the style of Blue boy, as a tribute to Gainsborough. In the 20th century, the figure of the Blue boy was both ridiculed as the very epitome of a ‘sissy’ and widely embraced by gay culture as a symbol of pride and flamboyance. Gainsborough blue his own horn as a late 18th-century successor to van Dyck, but his portrait inadvertently blue the doors off gender stereotypes in the following centuries.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Early Modern Blue-blood Studies Program

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