41680881 – trench fountain in the garden at the huntington botanical gardens in los angeles

In recent art world news, a mystery is unraveling at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (“The Huntington”) right here in the Los Angeles area (in San Marino to be exact).  It involves a sharply dressed young preteen who has been in public view throughout all his life, but whose true identity remains unclear.  This is the tale of “The Blue Boy” (circa 1770), the late artist Thomas Gainsborough’s 18th-century portrait of a rosy-cheeked young boy dapperly dressed in a blue satin suit.  His identity is unknown, but the painting is considered one of the most iconic and beloved in The Huntington’s collection.  The Huntington is about to embark on the most ambitious restoration of the nearly 250 year old masterpiece in almost a century with much of the conservation work to take place in public view in connection with a year-long exhibition set to open September 22 entitled “Project Blue Boy.”

Before the conservation process gets underway, The Huntington’s art conservator and curator, Christina O’Connell and Melinda McCurdy, respectively, are conducting extensive technical analysis on the painting.  Specifically, they are “using high-tech imaging techniques to scrutinize the painting’s surface, deconstruct the materials Gainsborough used and study the makeup of the canvas itself and its structural backing.”  This will enable them to assess the artwork’s needs and plan their conservation approach in restoration of the masterpiece.  The art detectives are also discovering some clues along the way, such as studying earlier Gainsborough sketches beneath the painting’s surface only visible with X-rays and breaking down the chemical composition of the artist’s pigments.  This will be helpful in answering broader questions about how the late artist worked and the life of the painting after it left his studio.

“The Blue Boy” painting has been conserved six times since being acquired by The Huntington in 1921.  Henry E. Huntington purchased the painting for a record-breaking sum of $728,000 at the time.  Because the masterpiece is so treasured by visitors, the museum’s priority each time was to keep disruptions to a minimum throughout its display life.  As such, previous conservations have been quick, temporary fixes primarily involving touching up worn or thinned out original paint instead of removing old varnish layers and applying new ones to maintain the work appearing bright.  With this current conservation, “The Blue Boy” will receive a “comprehensive aesthetic and structural overhaul.”

During the first few months of the upcoming exhibition, the painting will lie on a flat table or be set on an easel in a temporary conservation studio at one end of the gallery as O’Connell works on it.  An adjacent exhibition will provide history about Gainsborough and “The Blue Boy” along with details about the art conservation field.  In addition, hand tools, paint samples, a schematic of the painting’s material layers, and digital X-rays of the artwork will be on display.

The more laborious structural work of the conservation process, such as repairing the wooden stretcher of the canvas and reattaching the lining canvas, will occur privately over the following few months in the art conservator’s lab.  After which, the artwork will return to the public lab for final conservation.

In early 2020, the newly restored masterpiece will be returned to its prominent location in the Thornton Portrait Gallery at the museum.  In the interim, the art detectives will continue to study the painting throughout the entire exhibition and perhaps make some more intriguing discoveries along the way.

For further information on this innovative conservation process in public view at The Huntington, see “‘Blue Boy’ revisited:  The Huntington is saving its 18th-century masterpiece—and you get to watch,” published online by the Los Angeles Times on September 14, 2018.