For decades, Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy has been a hallmark of European portrait traditions. It depicts a young boy somewhere in his teenage years wearing a luxurious azure outfit and carrying a feathered cap in one hand. The iconic painting has been on display at The Huntington in San Marino, California since Henry and Arabella Huntington acquired the piece in the 1920s. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of this painting's purchase by the Huntington estate, the museum commissioned American artist Kehinde Wiley—who created the presidential portrait of President Barack Obama in 2017—to make a contemporary version of this portrait that connects with audiences of today.
The piece, entitled A Portrait of a Young Gentleman, features a young Black man of comparable age to The Blue Boy in modern streetwear, including an orange and black tie-dye t-shirt, blue shorts, and black sneakers. He carries a baseball cap in one hand and stands in a slight contrapposto stance with the other hand resting on his hip—just like his 18th-century counterpart. These intentional similarities pay homage to classical techniques while also reimagining Western European art to be more inclusive. “I loved The Huntington’s galleries; the paintings by Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and John Constable were some of my favorites,” Wiley says. “I was taken by their imagery, their sheer spectacle, and, of course, their beauty.
“Since I felt somewhat removed from the imagery—personally and culturally—I took a scientific approach and had an aesthetic fascination with these paintings. That distance gave me a removed freedom. Later, I started thinking about issues of desire, objectification, and fantasy in portraiture and, of course, colonialism.”
A Portrait of a Young Gentleman was installed at the opposite end of the room of The Blue Boy, challenging viewers to compare the past with the present. “By adding a work by Kehinde Wiley to our collection, and offering it on view in our most lauded gallery of historic art, we are examining our shared history and beginning to curate our future,” adds Christina Nielsen, Hannah and Russel Kully director of the Art Museum at The Huntington.
A Portrait of a Young Gentleman will be on view at the Thornton Portrait Gallery at The Huntington Museum until January 3, 2022. Additionally, The Blue Boy will travel to the UK in January 2022 for an exhibition at the National Gallery in London—100 years after it was moved to California.