Earthquakes are never far from O’Connell’s mind when a masterpiece like The Blue Boy is on her table. She “put[s] him to bed every night,” building him a fortress of ethafoam blocks, boards, and plastic tarps, carefully weighted down in case of disaster. While the painting is insured for millions of dollars, it is, of course, irreplaceable. For example, if it were arriving on the market today in its native England, it would “definitely be stopped” from coming to the U.S. by modern U.K. cultural heritage laws, McCurdy says.
Back in 1921, the American railroad magnate Henry Huntington acquired The Blue Boy from the Duke of Westminster for just $728,000. Though a bargain by today’s standards, at the time it was the highest price ever paid for a painting, albeit one described by The New York Times as “the world’s most beautiful picture.” The media breathlessly chronicled the portrait’s journey “from gilded galleries in Park Lane to the Wild West across the winter sea,” to quote Cole Porter’s ditty The Blue Boy Blues. By the time it arrived at Huntington’s California estate, it was not just a painting but also an icon.
Since then, The Blue Boy has become a part of The Huntington’s DNA. At one point, the museum even installed a trap door beneath the painting, allegedly so it could be whisked into a basement bomb shelter in the event of a nuclear attack. That same basement now holds a collection of Blue Boy kitsch, from ashtrays to needlepoint pillows, assembled by an enthusiastic donor.
The Blue Boy has become part of the Western cultural DNA, too. One of the painting’s first owners was John Hoppner, a painter whose work is represented in The Huntington’s collection. The Pop Art pioneer Robert Rauschenberg credited The Blue Boy with inspiring him to become a painter after he visited The Huntington on shore leave from the Navy during World War II. More recently, the L.A. artist Alex Israel evoked it in his 2014 self-portrait in a blue satin Dodgers jacket. The contemporary portraitist Kehinde Wiley, who took art classes at The Huntington as a child, cites The Blue Boy as a transforming influence. Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to a now-lost silent movie about the painting—F. W. Murnau’s 1919 Der Knabe in Blau—by putting Jamie Foxx in a frilly blue suit in Django Unchained.
“It’s famous not just because it’s famous. It’s famous because it’s good,” McCurdy points out. Nevertheless, the painting’s fame has tended to obscure how little scholars really know about it. Even the sitter’s very identity is in question. Though The Blue Boy was long thought to be a portrait of Gainsborough’s young neighbor, Jonathan Buttall, recent scholarship points to a model even closer to home: Gainsborough Dupont, the artist’s nephew and assistant.
While Project Blue Boy is still in its early stages, O’Connell is already confident that it will uncover some surprises. X-rays performed in 1939 revealed an unfinished portrait of an older man behind his head. Further studies in 1994 uncovered a fluffy white dog at the boy’s feet—possibly the artist’s own English water spaniel, Tristram. McCurdy hopes the current investigation will answer questions not just about The Blue Boy, but also about that ghostly unfinished portrait. “There’s a backstory behind why that portrait was abandoned,” she says. “If we can learn more about that painting, we may uncover some fascinating anecdote about Gainsborough’s life or studio practice.” Thanks to recent advances in technology, “there’s a chance we’re going to get a pretty clear image of that face,” she predicts.