A century after it was sold to an American railway tycoon, one of Thomas Gainsborough’s most famous paintings will return to London for a short exhibition.

Now owned by Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, this is the first time the painting has been lent to another gallery, and highly unlikely to happen again in most of our lifetimes.

The painting, 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.

The painting’s popularity with the public further cemented Gainsborough’s slight to Reynolds.

(c) Huntington Art Museum, San Marino, California

It passed through a number of owners until in 1921, the second Duke of Westminster sold it to the dealer Joseph Duveen, who in turn sold it to 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 at a time when American’s 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.

It will make a return trip to London at long last, and go on display in the National Gallery early next year in it’s own room, at the same time as a related exhibition that will include a select group of paintings that demonstrate the profound influence of Van Dyck on Gainsborough’s practice and identity.

The Blue Boy will be on display at the National Gallery between 25th January 2022 to 15th May 2022. It will be free to visit. At the moment, entry requires booking in advance, but tickets for January are not available yet, and the pre-booking requirement may change closer to the date anyway.

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