Christina O’Connell is armed and ready. She’s using an array of 21st century tools to restore an 18th century masterpiece.
Blue Boy is one of the world’s most recognizable paintings. The eternally youthful adolescent is marking his 250th birthday though, and his age is showing. The painting hasn’t had a substantial restoration in at least 97 years. It’s a bit torn and tattered. Some of its colors have faded. Worse still, some paint is beginning to flake.
Thomas Gainsborough’s 70-inch-tall oil canvas featuring a British youth dressed all in blue arrived at Southern California’s Huntington Library in 1921. Since that time, it has been one of the most sought-out attractions at The Huntington. The painting has been reproduced countless times. It has even been recreated as small porcelain figures for curio cabinets around the world.
Long before there were action figures and movie heroes, Blue Boy captured a culture’s attention. He became an icon, appearing in home and classroom décor for nearly two centuries. The Huntington has no intention of letting Blue Boy’s bright hues fade into oblivion.
O’Connell approached the giant canvas with a microscope that is taller than she is. With the six-foot apparatus, she zooms in on the painting’s tiniest details, magnifying them 25 times. Her touch-up paint was created to match the oil pigments Gainsborough used around 1770. O’Connell spent a year preparing for the restoration. She studied digital, X-ray, and infrared images of the famous work before making her preservation plan. She estimates the restoration will take at least a year before the kid will be back on The Huntington’s Thornton Gallery wall.
But Blue Boy fans won’t have to miss him completely during that time. In the same area where he has hung for nearly a century, visitors will be able to watch O’Connell at work. During occasional breaks, she’ll stop to explain her process to viewers.
“One of the reasons why the painting hasn’t undergone such an extensive conservation treatment before was because people always wanted to keep it on view,” she says. So the library came up with a way to give him his much-needed repairs without depriving his fan following.
Blue Boy first appeared at Britain’s Royal Academy exhibition of 1770. The artist titled the work A Portrait of a Young Gentleman—but viewers quickly gave him a nickname. Blue Boy he became and Blue Boy he remains.
No one can pin down just why the painting had such an immediate and lasting impact. The Huntington’s founder, railroad tycoon Henry Huntington, paid a record sum of money for it: $728,000. Some Britons reportedly cried when they learned the boy was leaving his native country for America.