Monday, May 02, 2011

A little treatise on biology

In the year 1885, nineteen-year-old Beatrix Potter visited Grosvenor House in London, home of the Duke of Westminster with an extensive art collection. She wrote in her journal: "There is one picture at the Grosvenor that puzzles me exceedingly, the Blue Boy is so exceedingly different and superior to all other pictures of its class. The colour is rich and full, the manner careful and broad without the scratchiness and the figure stands with the grace and firmness of a Van Dyck -- it was painted in 1770. Why did Gainsborough never paint any more to equal it?"

Why indeed? Clearly the life-sized painting impressed the young Miss Potter. It has been suggested that when she created Peter Rabbit seventeen years later Gainsborough's Blue Boy was her inspiration for Peter's blue jacket. I have written here about Beatrix Potter as a scientist; right now I like to imagine her standing in Grosvenor House transfixed by the young man who stares out at her -- yes, directly her> -- from the canvas. (Click pic, and again, to enlarge.)

She was not alone. The Blue Boy is arguably the most popular British painting ever, one of the most instantly recognizable images from the world of art. I'm not a fan of Gainsborough; I find his work fussy, over-blown and sentimental -- all those frilly women with their wedding-cake wigs and bonnets! Even his more austere work, such as his self-portrait and portrait of Bach, have a kind of muddy stiffness about them. But like almost everyone else, I like Blue Boy. And I've been trying to figure out why.

In dress and style, The Blue Boy is a clear homage to Van Dyck, who Gainsborough much admired, and therefore a throwback to an earlier era in art and taste. But Van Dyck's 1635 portrait of the young George Villiers (son of the George Villiers, favorite of James I), while clearly Gainsborough's inspiration, doesn't exert the same tug on our heartstrings.

I will wager that the 43-year-old Gainsborough was smitten with his young model, presumably Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy hardware merchant, though there is every reason to believe that the painter was heartily heterosexual and in love with the very idea of woman.

Innocence, beauty, the first flush of manhood. The silky costume against that somewhat forbidding background. The play-acting. The posture. The unabashed eye contact. Who wouldn't be smitten? I can imagine why Beatrix Potter was blown away. I can understand why for more than two centuries viewers of both sexes and of all ages have had a bit of a crush on Jonathan Buttall. Art at its best is not just pretty pictures. Art at its best has a way of stirring those universal wishes and desires that reach down into the twisted tangles of our DNA.