It was announced on Wednesday that the artwork would come home 100 years to the day since it was last seen in the UK. It is a crowd pleaser, described by newspapers at the time as “the world’s most beautiful picture”.
Once owned by the Duke of Westminster, it was purchased by the American railway magnate Henry E Huntington a century ago for a then world record price of $728,000.
Since then it has been a star exhibit at the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, California, never loaned and never likely to be loaned again.
Gabriele Finaldi, the director of the National Gallery, said the 2022 loan was “a unique opportunity for visitors to see Gainsborough at his dazzling best”. He called it “a painting of supreme poise and elegance … without doubt a masterpiece of British art”.
After it was bought by Huntington, The Blue Boy went on display at the National Gallery as part of a farewell tour. Over three weeks more than 90,000 people came to see it. The gallery’s director at the time, Charles Holmes, mournfully wrote “au revoir” on the reverse in the hope it would come back.
Its departure was met by a public outcry, although not everyone was concerned about it staying.
Before Huntington was revealed as the buyer, the Manchester Guardian expressed hope that The Blue Boy would find its way to France because, while British galleries were full of French art, “there is very little sign of any interest in France in English art”. “It would be a splendid thing if The Blue Boy were to pass into the French national collection,” wrote the Guardian’s correspondent.
Instead it went to the US where it has been adored. Its frequent appearances in popular culture include Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman, hanging on the walls of Gotham museum when it was taken over by Jack Nicholson’s Joker. It was casually vandalised by a philistine henchman. A copy also hung on the wall of the apartment of the mother of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in the 2019 origin story movie.
Elsewhere it has been the inspiration for Jamie Foxx’s valet costume in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained; and taken pride of place – along with the Japanese fighting fish – in the office of the villain Vincent Ludwig in Naked Gun.
The painting first appeared in public at the Royal Academy in 1770, the year it was painted, when it was titled A Portrait of a Young Gentleman. By 1798 it was being called The Blue Boy, a nickname that stuck.
As well as bringing a showstopper home, albeit temporarily, the free National Gallery display will explore how Gainsborough was responding to the legacy of Anthony van Dyck and grand manner portraiture.