Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How Gainsborough inspired Rauschenberg

Thomas Gainsborough, left, and his portrait "The Blue Boy." Inset: Robert Rauschenberg
It is the birthday of English artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727), whose most famous work, “The Blue Boy” (1770), was painted to prove a point, and went on to inspire a famous modern-day artist. Here’s how it happened:

A rival artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723), contended that the major colors in portraits should be yellows and reds, and that blues, grays, and greens should be kept to a minimum. Gainsborough didn’t agree. Historians think his life-size portrait is the son of a wealthy merchant, but nobody knows for sure.

In any case, the portrait was sold in 1796, when the merchant filed for bankruptcy, went through a succession of owners and ended up with a famous British art dealer, Joseph Duveen, in 1921. By then it was pretty famous, having been published in various periodicals and shown at the Royal Academy and the British National Gallery.

Along came Henry Huntington, who had made a fortune in building Los Angeles’ world-class trolley system, and was an avid collector of art are rare books. Huntington bought “The Blue Boy” and a portrait by Reynolds from Duveen for what would have been more than $8.5 million in 2014 dollars.

The transaction caused a patriotic uproar in Britain, and the director of the National Gallery, Sir Charles Holmes, scribbled in pencil on one of the stretchers for “The Blue Boy” a parting message, “Au devoir, C.H.” The paintings were put on display at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where they remain today.

In 1943, future modern artist Robert Rauschenberg was a Navy draftee stationed at San Diego Naval Hospital. On furlough, he hitchhiked up the coast and visited the Huntington Library, where he saw “The Blue Boy,” and, for the first time, realized that people could earn a living as an artist. Rauschenberg went on to become one of the most famous pop artists of all time. 

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