Gainsborough's Blue Boy: The Return of a British Icon

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Accompanies the exhibition at the National Gallery, London, 25 January - 15 May 2022.

This richly illustrated publication, marking the return of Gainsborough's Blue Boy to the UK exactly 100 years since it left for the United States, explores the lasting influence of this iconic painting on British art and culture. Including a select group of paintings that demonstrate the profound influence of Sir Anthony van Dyck and the old master tradition on Gainsborough's practice and identity, the catalogue examines this masterpiece within the context of the National Gallery's collection.

During the nineteenth century, the painting's fame grew and full-length portraits by Gainsborough and his contemporaries became much sought after by wealthy American collectors. American buying power from the 1880s onwards was mirrored by the comparative economic decline of the British aristocracy. The sale of The Blue Boy in 1921, to the American railroad magnate and collector Henry E. Huntington, was therefore seen by many as emblematic of this shift in economic and cultural power.

Given the proximity to the end of the First World War, the loss of The Blue Boy was unsurprisingly viewed as a national tragedy. However, its afterlife, as a kind of permanent ambassador for British art, has undoubtedly fed into ideas of Britain and Britishness - its history, society, culture and character - that still resonate today.


Christine Riding is the Jacob Rothschild Head of the Curatorial Department and Curator of British Paintings at the National Gallery, London.

Dr Susanna Avery-Quash is Senior Research Curator (History of Collecting) at the National Gallery, London.

Melinda McCurdy is Curator of British Art at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA.

Jacqueline Riding specialises in eighteenth-century British art and history and is the author of Hogarth: Life in Progress (London 2021).

Imogen Tedbury is the former Simon Sainsbury Curatorial Fellow at the National Gallery, London.

Colour illustration57
Dimensions23 x 27 cm
PublishedJanuary 2022
PublisherNational Gallery Company Ltd
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