Several years ago I was attending a meeting of my Rotary Club of Tacoma #8. I was wearing blue jeans, a blue shirt, and a blue sweater. My friend Jim Harris looked at me and said, “The Blue Boy, I presume?” I laughed and wondered out loud how many people today would even know the reference. A few weeks ago I saw the news that the original painting is having its first substantial restoration in almost a hundred years.
While writing this article on an early Sunday morning, my buddy Donn Irwin called about breakfast. We frequently have breakfast on Sunday mornings with another friend and our wives. I casually mentioned The Blue Boy, and Donn replied that he had seen the original three times. Donn grew up in Southern California, and The Blue Boy hangs nearby in The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
The Blue Boy was painted by Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788). No one knows who the model was. He is dressed in very stylish clothes (blue silk with a floppy hat and large white plume). Modern technology reveals that Gainsborough first had a lively little dog at the boy’s feet and then painted layers over the dog and even incorporated the dog’s front paws into the painting as rocks. When the painting is completely restored and rehung in 2020, many more people will have a chance to enjoy the painting, which will be closer to the original look. -[youtube youtube.com/w/?v=WHPiJq0iwC0%5D
My history with The Blue Boy, like Donn, goes back to my childhood. A print of the famous painting hung in the living room in our small home at 2520 South Ferry Street in Tacoma. Over time it moved from Tacoma, to Lakewood, to Ponder’s Corner, and then back to Tacoma on North D and then to North 11th. Joining The Blue Boy in our living room was the Heinrich Hofmann iconic Christ in Gethsemane (1890) print as well. Hofmann painted Christ with a definite Germanic look . . . strait medium brown hair and beard. The painting was purchased by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and along with two other works of Hofmann are all displayed at the Riverside Church in New York City.
“The picture’s success lies in the appropriateness of its tone: the transformation of abject agony into a palatable scene of devotion. Christ’s solitude may well reflect Hofmann’s own isolation and reliance upon faith; his wife, who was often in poor health, passed away only months after the completion of Gethsemane, leaving Hofmann a widower for nearly 20 years.” – heinrichhofmann.net/christ-in-gethsemane.html
Christ in Gethsemane is one of the most copied paintings in the world. When I was attending the University of Puget Sound and majoring in fine arts (painting and drawing) and working the graveyard shift at the Boeing Renton plant, a fellow worker asked me to paint my version of the painting for him. Even though he was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which forbids displays of iconology. Three things stand out about my painting: I impressed myself with the handling of Christ’s robe; my friend loved my painting; I never got paid.
As a twelve-year old, my wife, took the bus to the Puyallup Fair and returned with a small print of The Blue Boy. In later years she saw the painting itself when she and friend Kathy Whitacre visited The Huntington, while in Southern California for a calligraphy conference.
The third piece of art decorating our home in the 1950s was a photographic print of birch trees lining a dirt road. Many experts suggest that a road, or a trail. depict the path of life and all that it entails. Since my parents grew up in Missouri I picture mules being driven down to the back forty, but I have no idea why they had that print . . . well in reality, I have no idea why we had any of these images. I asked my youngest sister, Deedee about the art . . . and she just gave me a blank look. The two prints of paintings had nice frames. Only one was religious and my parents almost never went to church, but sent me to church on my bike when we lived on Maple Avenue in Lakewood. I’m sure I went a time or two, but soon took a detour to Lake Steilacoom to read books along the shore . . . in my mind there’s a dirt road and the trees are birch instead of oak, but still . . . I like to think that art is a connection with our world, our family . . . and our memories.