He is one of the most beautiful, ravishingly dressed, mysterious boys in the world. And now he’s coming home, a century after he left Britain.

The Blue Boy, Gainsborough’s 1770 masterpiece, with his enigmatic stare and lavish outfit, has long captivated art lovers — and millionaires. In 1922, an American tycoon bought the picture for the highest price ever paid for a painting and it left these shores for California, where it has stayed - until now.

Next month, 100 years since it left Britain, The Blue Boy will be on show at the National Gallery for four months. Once again, the public are bound to fall in love with him — and be astounded by his size.

The picture may be of a young boy but it’s a big one, at 5 ft 10 in by 3 ft 8 in. The bewitching attraction of the picture lies in its mystery. Like the Mona Lisa, The Blue Boy has an enigmatic smile. However many times you look at him, you can never work out exactly what he’s thinking.

Sometimes, the smile looks cheery and friendly; sometimes, it sports an air of melancholy. When you combine it with that unusually confident stare, the smile has a touch of arrogance. That arrogance is heightened by the boy’s stance in contrapposto style — that is, with one leg bent and another straight, a pose first devised by ancient Greek sculptors.

Visitors crowd around The Blue Boy at London’s National Gallery, 1922.

Film director Quentin Tarantino was so taken by this look after his costume designer slipped a picture of The Blue Boy into his research book, he modeled a costume for his title character in Django Unchained on Gainsborough’s distinctive subject.

But who was The Blue Boy?

However many times you look at him, you can never work out exactly what he’s thinking.

When the painting was first shown in 1770, it was called A Portrait of a Young Gentleman. By 1798, it was being dubbed The Blue Boy - and the nickname stuck.

It is thought to be Jonathan Buttall (1752-1805), the son of a rich hardware merchant, who was a close friend of Gainsborough. Well, the British Museum seems to think it is, but some scholars think The Blue Boy is Gainsborough’s nephew, Gainsborough Dupont, who was painted in a similar blue suit in 1773 by his uncle. Buttall would have been 18 when it was painted — perhaps a little older than the boy looks in the picture, but not dramatically so.

What we do know is that Buttall owned the picture. But in 1796 he was made bankrupt aged 44. He sold the picture to politician John Nesbitt. In 1802, artist John Hoppner bought the picture. Then, in 1809, one of the richest men in the world, Earl Grosvenor (ancestor of the Duke of Westminster) bought it.

Finally, in 1922, it was sold by his descendant to railway tycoon Henry Edwards Huntington, for $728,000, then the highest price ever paid for a painting. He put it on display at his Huntington Library in California, and it has stayed there ever since.

Before the picture left for the U.S. in 1922, it was put on show at the National Gallery, where 90,000 bereaved visitors queued to say goodbye to the boy. The then director of the National Gallery, Charles Holmes, was so moved by the prospect of the painting’s departure that he wrote ‘Au revoir’ on the back of it in the hope that it would return one day. How delighted he would have been to see it back in the National Gallery.

18th-Century Boy, 17th-Century Style

The blue satin outfit is a 17th-century-style suit, which only adds to the compelling strangeness of the picture: a boy wearing the clothes of a century earlier. That choice was made by Gainsborough in honor of a painter he much admired, Anthony van Dyck, and his portrait of Lord Strange, painted in a blue satin suit in 1638, aged ten.

Gainsborough’s picture was to be entered into the ultimate competition — the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770 — up against his greatest living rivals. Needless to say, the picture was a huge hit.

At the time he painted The Blue Boy, the artist was 43 and at the peak of his powers. It was a revolutionary picture, with many points of departure from the run-of-the-mill portraits of the day.

Quentin Tarantino modeled Django Unchained’s titular character, played by Jamie Foxx, on The Blue Boy.

He might also have been provoked to new heights of brilliance by a bitter rivalry with his contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who declared: ‘It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colours; and for this purpose, a small proportion of cold colour will be sufficient.’

By using blue so bravely, Gainsborough may have been tossing a pot of paint in his rival’s face.

In 1939, an X-ray of the painting revealed that he had first half-finished a picture of an older man. When he realized this wouldn’t work, he repainted the boy on top of the old picture. Then, in 1995, another X-ray showed that Gainsborough had originally put a dog next to the boy. He later concealed the dog with a pile of rocks on the right.

The then director of the National Gallery was so moved by the painting’s departure that he wrote ‘Au revoir’ on the back of it in the hope that it would return one day.

The picture worked its magic on the public almost immediately, with people buying prints in their millions. And it has also echoed through films over the years. In Der Knabe in Blau (The Boy in Blue), a 1919 silent movie by German director F.W. Murnau (who directed horror classic Nosferatu), a little boy appears who looks just like Gainsborough’s subject.

Because The Blue Boy is on show in California, it has notched up an impressive number of appearances in Hollywood movies, too. More recently, The Blue Boy has popped up in The Naked Gun (1988), Batman (1989) and Joker (2019). And, as we have seen, in Django Unchained (2012), Jamie Foxx is dressed in an outfit that looks just like The Blue Boy.

American artists, too, have been heavily influenced by the picture, which has become one of the most famous paintings in the U.S. Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg said he was inspired to become a painter by The Blue Boy.

But he is still loved in Britain, too, so well-known in fact that he’s referred to in an episode of Victoria Wood’s mock soap opera, Acorn Antiques, in which a clueless customer asks if they’ve got ‘Gainsborough’s Blue Boy in mauve’.

Visitors to the National Gallery will see The Blue Boy in better shape than he has been for decades. In California, from 2018 to 2020, he underwent a complete restoration by the Huntington’s senior paintings conservator Christina O’Connell.

What a treat for us, then, that our favorite boy is coming home. His satin jacket will never have looked so beautiful — or so strikingly blue.

Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy will be at the National Gallery, in London, from January 25 to May 15, 2022

Harry Mount is a London-based journalist and the editor of The Oldie