Thomas Gainsborough (c. 1727-1788), the youngest son of a maker of woolen goods, convinced his father to allow him to study painting in London - a remarkable feat (and undertaking) for a 13 year old. He apprenticed with the French illustrator and draftsman, Hubert Gravelot, whose involvement with Rococo art and design would influence his young apprentice.
By 1770, Thomas Gainsborough resided in Bath, England, where he had forged a reputation as one of the foremost portrait painters. His portraits were
Thomas Gainsborough. The Blue Boy, ca. 1770. Oil on canvas, 5' 10" by 4'. Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
in demand by wealthy patrons who came to the Bath spa (and soaked, fully clothed, in its allegedly healing waters).
Problematically, though, Thomas Gainsborough disliked portraiture, preferring landscapes.
He allegedly commented:
"I paint portraits to live, landscapes because I love them, and music because I cannot leave it alone".
His solution, as evidenced in one of his most famous paintings, The Blue Boy, was the creation of a "landscape portrait".
When The Blue Boy was first exhibited in 1770, Gainsborough was striving to cement his reputation in London. He showed The Blue Boy at the Royal Academy, a celebrated venue that had opened the prior year. The portrait was quite well received, and remains one of the most famous paintings Gainsborough created.
Because it's a show-stopper.
Gainsborough handles paint so brilliantly that The Blue Boy has the volume of a Renaissance sculpture. The delicate, feathery brushstrokes of the glistening blue costume are echoed at his feet and in the storm clouds and sunset. Thomas Gainsborough shows his hand as a Rococco painter while eschewing contemporary taste for a smooth, flat finish.
The Blue Boy exudes complete confidence and poise, and dons an outfit similar
Donatello's first version of David, 1408-1409. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.
to those in van Dyck paintings. Given that Gainsborough copied and restored Flemish paintings during the onset of his career, it's not surprising that Thomas Gainsborough borrowed stylistic elements from van Dyck.
Although the identity of The Blue Boy was unknown for nearly two centuries, art historians now know him as Jonathan Buttall, the son of a hardware merchant and friend of the artist. It's unlikely this work was commissioned -- The Blue Boy was painted on a used canvas and covers another portrait -- but it solidified Thomas Gainsborough's reputation in London. And in art history.
I don't know of evidence that Thomas Gainsborough saw Donatello's David, but does anyone else see hints of it in The Blue Boy? Let me know, please.
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