Blue Boy was Gainsborough’s first attempt at full length Van Dyck dress – knee breeches and a slashed doublet with a lace collar – which is based on the work of Anthony van Dyck, the 17th-century Flemish painter who had revolutionized British art. For Gainsborough, it was a way to show that he could match the elegance of the earlier court portraitist, who was as much a gentleman as his clients. Rather than a commission, it was painted for his own pleasure and as a demonstration of his abilities.
Though clearly indebted to Van Dyck, Gainsborough’s painting technique was entirely his own. Whereas Van Dyck applied color in discrete patches composed of short consecutive strokes, Gainsborough presents a chaos of erratic color and brushstrokes. The shimmering blue satin is rendered in a spectrum of minutely calibrated tints – indigo, lapis, cobalt, slate, turquoise, charcoal, and cream – that have been applied in extremely complex layers of vigorous slashes and fine strokes. At the proper distance, the diverse pigments crystallize into an illusion of solidity. Blue Boy did not seduce its first viewers with an image of a celebrity or with philosophical allusions, but with Gainsborough’s command of paint and the sheer mastery of his brushwork.