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Throughout his career, Thomas Gainsborough was interested in the work of his predecessors – most notably Anthony van Dyck, who returned to King Charles I’s court in 1632. His paintings of the king and his family, friends and courtiers transformed artistic expectations. In particular, Van Dyck popularised the ‘grand manner’ of full-length portraiture in Britain, and by the 18th century, he epitomised the height of artistic achievement: a ‘celebrity’ painter honoured by the royal family and known for his extraordinary ability. He was also popular among Gainsborough’s patrons, who often donned ‘Van Dyck’ costume to pose for portraits. Gainsborough aspired to such a reputation and sought to understand his painterly technique, making several copies after the earlier artist’s work. By referencing Van Dyck, Gainsborough deliberately established himself in this great lineage of European artists.

The National Gallery displays a tradition of grand manner painting that can be traced from the Renaissance through Van Dyck to Gainsborough and beyond. This lineage illuminates Gainsborough’s adoption of ideas from the work of Titian, Rubens and Claude, as well as Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jacob van Ruisdael.

Since its foundation in 1824, the National Gallery has been a home to artists who study the past to create art for the present. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), its first artist trustee, was an heir to Gainsborough who adopted his method of drawing on artistic traditions to create thoroughly modern portraits. The momentous display of 'The Blue Boy' reminds us of the connections between past and present, as well as the timeless humanity of Gainsborough’s portraiture.

The story of British Art audio guide

Discover the connections between artists past and present in this tour that looks at the influence of European artists through the ages and how they helped shape Gainsborough and his approach to portraiture and landscapes.
Play now on Smartify

Gainsborough's Blue Boy

25 January – 15 May 2022

For the first time in a century, Gainsborough's iconic portrait returned to the UK
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