For a couple of months, it’s possible to see a painting in London whose sale a century ago to an America caused an outcry to save it for the nation. Unsuccessfully.
The painting, made in 1770, of a young man in a striking blue outfit in a style similar to Anthony van Dyck was painted by Gainsborough as a challenge to his rival Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had declared that blue should be avoided in paintings in favour of the warmer colours.
Although not initially appreciated by the public, by the 19th-century, it was a firm favourite. It had been owned by a number of people, until in 1921 it was bought by the American railway pioneer Henry Edwards Huntington, for an at the time record price for a painting, of £182,000.
The sale to a foreigner, and an American at that, and at a time when Americans were buying up chunks of English heritage and shipping it across the Atlantic, caused an outcry, and a farewell exhibition was visited by over 90,000 people. The National Gallery’s director Charles Holmes turned the painting over and wrote the farewell words “Au Revoir, C.H” on the back of the painting. That message is still there.
The painting is back in London for a few months to mark the centenary of the sale and is likely to be the last time most of us will be able to see it.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand why something captures the public imagination unless you see or experience it yourself. And this painting is one of those moments. The self-confident look of the boy in the painting looking almost at you the viewer would be good in any painting, but the exceptionally realistic blue satin outfit with the white ruff. The decision though to paint a muted brown landscape almost causes the boy to float in front of the painting giving it nearly a three-dimensional effect.
One of the great mysteries about the painting though is who is the boy?
It had long been thought to be Jonathan Buttall, a former owner of the painting and the son of a London ironmonger. Recently, it’s been suggested the boy was Gainsborough’s nephew and his only apprentice, Gainsborough Dupont. It’s a mystery that’s unlikely to be solved though.
There are four other complementary paintings in the room as well as a walking trail to follow around the rest of the National Gallery.