Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’ LRB May 12, 2022


In the beginningIn the 1860s, Edgar Degas made a copy of Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Louisa Georgina Augusta Anne Murray. The original, now at Kenwood House, is believed to have been completed between 1824 and 1826 and shows the Duke of Wellington’s four-year-old goddaughter prancing before her audience like a 19th-century Shirley Temple. There are ribbons and rosy cheeks and curls and more than a touch of Henry James. In a letter to his father, Lawrence wrote that he wanted to “catch” a moment of fleeting beauty before the inevitable “change” happened. The whole thing is, at least for modern tastes, quite revolting.

Degas Miss Murray is different. He ignores Lawrence’s sweet touches and fussy costume details. The background of the canvas is left visible. There is only a whisper of foliage, just enough to give us the information we need. It looks like the ghost of a painting, dispensing with the artificial qualities of the polished, finished surface. Here, Degas is the heir not of Lawrence but of Corot.

It is surprising that Degas was drawn to Lawrence’s painting in the first place. He was generally averse to anything sentimental and intolerant of other artists – he once announced that the constables should shoot all landscape painters. Perhaps he saw in Miss Murray something of the young dancer, her leap precursor of ballet steps. Or maybe it was the childhood theme; Degas and Manet made transcriptions of Velázquez Infanta Margaret at the time. Or it may be symptomatic of French interest in the English pastoral. Delacroix visited England in 1825, meeting both Lawrence and Richard Parkes Bonington; the trip inspired his fresco portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter, which Degas later purchased for his private collection.

Degas’ own instincts as a painter highlight the difficulties of the genre. The “fantasy picture”, as it was called, had become popular in England by the end of the 18th century. George Vertue first used the term to describe the paintings of Philip Mercier (who owed something to Watteau), before it was taken up by Joshua Reynolds to describe Thomas Gainsborough’s idealized portraits of peasant children. For Degas, the problem with the fantasy painting was not just a problem of sentiment, but of the treatment of the canvas as a whole. Cute details in a generic rural setting didn’t appeal to him. Instead, he turned the portrait into a series of statements about tonal similarities. His considerations are always pictorial; by daring to take the portrait seriously, he calls the genre to bluff.

by Gainsborough blue boy was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1770 under the catalog title “Portrait of a Young Gentleman”. Its display at the National Gallery (until May 15) marks one hundred years since it was purchased by Henry Huntington for a record $728,000 and shipped to California, where it hangs alongside Lawrence’s portrait of Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton, known as ‘Pinkie’ (and to avoid on a full belly). blue boy was painted around 1770, when Gainsborough was living in Bath. For many years the sitter was identified as Jonathan Buttall, the son of a London ironmonger who owned the painting until the mid-1790s. But more recent evidence suggests it could be a portrait of Gainsborough’s nephew, Gainsborough Dupont, who lived with him and worked as his assistant.

Dimensions are important. Most English painters of the time adhered to three standard canvas sizes: full-length (30 x 25 inches), half-length (50 x 40 inches), and full-length (94 x 58 inches). blue boy measures 70 x 44 inches, proportions similar to those used by Gainsborough in works such as Girl with dog and pitcher and Girl collecting faggots in a wood. Unlike all other known portraits of Gainsborough (those that were commissioned, anyway), this one is painted on second-hand canvas, which not only tells us something about the identity of the sitter (it doesn’t was probably not someone important), but also aligns the work with the more personal and experimental genre of fantasy imagery.

In a letter to his friend William Jackson, written at the height of his career, Gainsborough complained that he was “fed up with portraits”, but he nevertheless seems to have enjoyed his whimsical images – these are the works for which he commissioned the highest price. And unlike portraits of aristocratic patrons, they allowed an artist to show themselves in public exhibitions. Showing off often meant paying homage to the masters of the 17th century. For Gainsborough, success was synonymous with Van Dyck, who was considered the master of portraiture in grand style. From Bath, Gainsborough could easily visit the homes of a number of aristocratic collectors (important for an artist who did not travel abroad). Following a visit to Wilton House in 1764, Gainsborough made a copy of Van Dyck’s portrait of Philip Herbert, fourth Earl of Pembroke, with his family. His faithful transcription of Van Dyck Lord John Stuart and his brother, Lord Bernard Stuart, believed to have been completed on site at Cobham Hall in the 1760s, is one of his finest achievements. Even Reynolds praised the copy as indistinguishable from the original.

'Elizabeth and Mary Linley' (circa 1772)

‘Elizabeth and Mary Linley’ (circa 1772)

Van Dyck’s vogue was not without criticism. In his Seventh Discourse (delivered in 1776), Reynolds complained that superficial imitations and adaptations were too often confused with works of genius:

We all remember very well how common it was a few years ago to draw portraits in this fantastic dress; and this custom is not yet entirely abandoned. By this means it must be recognized that very ordinary pictures have acquired something of the air and effect of the works of Van Dyck, and therefore have seemed at first sight to be better pictures than they really were .

Gainsborough’s borrowings in blue boy extend beyond “fantasy dress” and encompass a range of technical and formal considerations. As in Van Dyck’s portrait of the Stuart Brothers, a series of layered brushstrokes outline the creases and sheen of the blue satin (painted from a studio prop), and there are flecks of impasto white to suggest the texture of lace and ties. The outlines of the boy’s face mimic the lightness of Van Dyck’s touch, and Gainsborough learns from his manipulation of highlights – a well-placed dot of paint to indicate moisture in lips and eyes. In composition, the painting reverses the pose adopted by George Villiers in Van Dyck’s double portrait of George and Francis of 1635, a painting much admired by Gainsborough’s contemporaries and made popular in copies and engravings. There is also more than an echo of young Prince Charles’ position in Van Dyck’s portrayal The five eldest children of Charles I (1637).

Portraits of society, however instructive, could not teach Gainsborough everything. How should he negotiate the relationship between foreground and background? How much could these paintings teach him about the figure in the landscape? For Reynolds, the answer lay with the Venetians. Titian Bacchus and Ariadne (1520) was the model here, achieving “colour harmony” through an act of compositional cross-dressing. In his Eighth Discourse (1778), Reynolds explains:

The figure of Ariadne is separated from the large group, and is dressed in blue, which, added to the color of the sea, gives that amount of cold color which Titian believed necessary for the support and brilliance of the large group; which group is composed, with very few exceptions, entirely of soft colors. But since the image in this case would be divided into two distinct parts, one half cold and the other warm, it was necessary to bring some of the soft colors of the large group into the cold part of the image, and part of the cold in the large group; accordingly, Titian gave Ariadne a red scarf, and one of the Bacchantes a small blue drapery.

These observations are part of Reynolds’ larger discussion of the relative merits of Venetian and Flemish masters. A portrait of Van Dyck, he argued, appears “cold and gray” compared to Titian’s brilliance. Indeed, “masses of light in an image” should always be “soft and warm in color”, while blue, gray and green should only be used “to support and enhance these warm colors. “. Gainsborough’s decision to reverse this wisdom has been misinterpreted as an affront to the academy – an anachronistic reading (blue boy was painted several years before Reynolds gave his Eighth Speech) but which nevertheless alerts us to the shortcomings of his color management. blue boy, despite its name, is a rather brown paint and the canvas, for all its virtuosity, is lead. It may have more to do with temperature than tint: the hot and cold areas of the paint aren’t reconciled, meaning the fabric never really shines, it just tells us it does. .

'Red Boy' (1825)

One of the consequences of this division is that the boy himself attains a monumentality which he would not otherwise enjoy. It’s clear Gainsborough wanted him to stand out: X-rays show he painted over a white spaniel that originally stood at the boy’s feet – a detail that would have compromised the integrity of the outline. This focus also explains why painting is well served by reproductions that amplify the figure while flattening or filtering out areas of dissonance. The inability to make the painting consistent inadvertently contributed a great deal to the boy’s popularity. He is already set apart.

Gainsborough’s painting of Elizabeth and Mary Linley (also on display at the National Gallery) is more subtle. The sisters had brief singing careers in London and Bath. Elizabeth, in blue, fled to France with the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan before the painting was completed in 1772. In 1785 Gainsborough altered the hairstyles and dresses to bring them into line with the latest fashions. To like blue boy, the painting is inspired by the Stuart brothers of Van Dyck, but here the influence is felt more deeply. The balance between gold and blue occurs within and between the elements: a warm pigment in a cold zone, a cold pigment in a warm zone. Gainsborough unifies the composition through touch, putting a hand on a wrist, a finger and a thumb on a sheet of music. Flowers touch a dress. There’s nothing slick here; although the proportions of the figures are not entirely convincing, the brushstroke is more keenly sensitive to the tactility of each surface. Of all the paintings in the small exhibition to celebrate the temporary loan of blue boyit is the one that deserves attention.

When blue boy returns to the Huntington later this year, Lawrence red boy (1825), newly acquired by the National Gallery, will take its place. It shows young Charles Lambton sitting on a rocky ledge (although it could be a huge armchair) by a moonlit sea, looking hopelessly bored. Wordsworth called it “a wretched histrionic thing”, but gallery managers disagree. They call it a “tour de force of technical genius”. To like blue boyit may be part of our “national heritage”, but it’s a painting that only Degas could teach us to love.


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