Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy to return to the UK after 100 years

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The Blue Boy and its artist Thomas GainsboroughImage source, National Gallery/Getty
Image caption,
The Blue Boy was painted by Thomas Gainsborough (right) in 1770

One of British art's most famous paintings, The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough, is to return to the UK 100 years after it left.

The 1770 masterpiece will be loaned to the National Gallery, where it will go on display on 25 January 2022.

The London gallery's 1922 farewell show for the work attracted 90,000 visitors after it was sold to a US businessman.

Current National Gallery director Dr Gabriele Finaldi said the work showed Gainsborough at "his dazzling best".

"The loan of Gainsborough's The Blue Boy to the National Gallery is truly exceptional and a unique opportunity for visitors," Dr Finaldi added.

"Rich in historical resonances, a painting of supreme poise and elegance, The Blue Boy is without doubt a masterpiece of British art."

Image source, The National Gallery
Image caption,
The Blue Boy at the National Gallery in 1922 attracted 90,000 visitors over three weeks

The painting, which depicts a young man in a blue satin suit set against a moody country landscape, is thought to be of Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy merchant.

It was bought and taken to the US by the railway pioneer Henry Edwards Huntington. Since then, it has been on display at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

Before The Blue Boy left British soil, the then-National director Charles Holmes wrote "Au revoir" on the back of the painting in the hope it would one day return.

'Iconic status'

The painting's popularity and cultural influence have seen it quoted by contemporary artists and depicted in Hollywood films including Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, in which one of Jamie Foxx's outfits was said to have been inspired by that worn by Gainsborough's young subject.

The artwork was also seen in films including 1989's Batman, Joker and The Naked Gun.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Blue Boy on display at the Huntington Museum

The Huntington's president Karen R Lawrence said: "This masterpiece has made an indelible mark on both art history and popular culture, capturing the imaginations of a wide range of audiences.

"Given The Blue Boy's iconic status at The Huntington, this is an unprecedented loan, one which we considered very carefully. We hope that this partnership with the National Gallery will spark new conversations, appreciation and research on both sides of the Atlantic."

'Showing off'

In 2018, the Huntington began to restore the painting, with much of the work carried out in public in what was dubbed the Project Blue Boy exhibition.

Despite the painting's fame, it is acknowledged as being largely inspired by the work of Anthony Van Dyck.

"We have to remember that this painting wasn't commissioned, but rather was produced by Gainsborough for the express purpose of showing off his prowess at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770, where it would be seen next to the work of his rivals," Project Blue Boy co-curator Melinda McCurdy told ArtFix Daily in September.

"Gainsborough intended it to grab attention, and conservation work has revealed the incredible technical skill he brought to this showpiece."

The Blue Boy will be on show at the National Gallery, London, from 25 January to 15 May 2022.

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