Welcome to the Chubby Chatterbox Newsletter, where I’ll be posting favorites from the Chubby Chatterbox archives. In addition, my complete thriller Return of the Mary Celeste will soon be serialized here for those who have asked for something beyond a regular post.

My novel is based on a true event, arguably the greatest maritime mystery of all time. In 1872 the crew and passengers of Boston brigantine Mary Celeste abandoned their seaworthy ship and its valuable cargo, vanishing in the middle of the Atlantic. Speculation over their fate has never abated. History records that after the Mary Celeste tragedy no one from that fateful voyage was ever seen again. History is about to be rewritten…

Return of the Mary Celeste


Tragedy struck the brigantine Mary Celeste on the morning of November 25, 1872. The hourly log was later recovered from the deserted vessel; At 8 a.m. the last notation was made. By 9 a.m. no one remained aboard to chalk the next entry.

Something had terrified Captain Benjamin Briggs and his crew, prompting the seasoned skipper to make a decision certain to affect not only himself, his ship and crew, but his family as well—his wife and two year old daughter were aboard Mary Celeste. Much ink has been spilled in fanciful and scientific attempts to explain the calamity that engulfed this perfectly seaworthy ship, yet all that is known for certain is this: in a matter of minutes Captain Briggs became convinced that the only way to save their lives was by ordering everyone into a hastily launched lifeboat. By giving the order to abandon ship, he also launched the greatest of all maritime mysteries.

On December 5, 1872, a month after leaving New York Harbor, Mary Celeste was found drifting on a calm and empty sea. The ship was in fine condition, perfectly intact with valuable cargo safely stored in her hold, but the crew and passengers had vanished. None were ever seen again.

Until now….

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The Blue Boy

January 30, 2015

This painting, parodied and reduced to paint-by-number, has been reproduced and hung in millions of homes over the decades. Type the words Blue Boy into Google and nothing more is necessary to bring forth this image. Like the Mona Lisa, you might think little more can be said about something so deeply etched into the public consciousness. Actually, The Blue Boy represents the solution to an interesting dilemma experienced by the British elite, the type of folks featured so prominently in Downton Abbey.

The Blue Boy was painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1770. At the time, England wasn’t known for producing outstanding artists. Foreigner Hans Holbein was employed to immortalize Henry VIII and his court, and Charles I was depicted as the man who looked every inch a king by Flemish master Anthony Van Dyck. The most important English artist working in Gainsborough’s day was Joshua Reynolds, an industrious but dry academician who would later become President of the new Royal Academy. Reynolds had studied extensively in Rome and believed nothing good came from straying from classical influences. He painted titled ladies in the guise of Roman goddesses, while men were posed after famous classical statuary. But there was a problem.

                                    Portrait by Reynolds in pose of Apollo Belvedere

England in the eighteenth century was filled with luxurious estates and town homes rich with splendid portraits by Van Dyck. Many connoisseurs didn’t think Reynolds’ stuffy new portraits blended with Van Dyck’s work. Gainsborough agreed, and began offering portraits in what he called “fancy costumes,” sure to blend in with masterpieces by Van Dyck. The Blue Boy, and pictures like it, were the result.

The sitter for The Blue Boy is said to be Jonathan Buttall, thought to be the son of a wealthy hardware merchant. Evidently, the boy liked to hang around Gainsborough’s studio and the artist told him to go to a trunk where he kept an assortment of newly acquired clothes suitable for costume balls. It’s easy to think young men walked around London dressed like this, but they didn’t. This style of clothing was popular in Van Dyck’s day, a century and a half earlier. Rich art collectors eager to display their affluence, noticed immediately that a contemporary portrait by Gainsborough, painted to mimic the older Baroque style of Van Dyck, looked marvelous hanging beside ancestral portraits painted by the Flemish master.

                                                  Gainsborough's The Blue Boy, 1770

This ploy might not have worked had Gainsborough not been such a virtuoso with the brush. Untrained in classical techniques, Gainsborough painted loosely and with scorching speed, and he shunned assistants, painting not only the faces but the glorious fabrics and details himself. His work only hinted at classicism while appearing fresh and spontaneous, in some ways surpassing the work of Van Dyck.

Skilled though he was, Gainsborough wasn’t fond of creating portraits, even though they were his bread and butter. He preferred landscape painting, and often used pebbles and parsley for inspiration to create landscape paintings in his studio. Notice how prominent the landscape is in The Blue Boy. Artists back then mixed their own colors, and paint in tubes had yet to be invented; painting outside on location was impractical and had to wait until the Impressionists.

The Blue Boy is often paired with that other famous painting, Pinkie, painted by Thomas Lawrence. In life, The Blue Boy and Pinkie were never a couple; Pinkie was painted nearly twenty-five years after The Blue Boy, but the two paintings hang facing each other at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. And who knows what these crazy kids do at night after visitors leave and the lights go out?    

                  My Grandmother had a pair of these reproductions in her livingroom.    

                               The Blue Boy is one of the world's most parodied paintings.  

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Oh! That last one's going to make my eyes bleed. Gainsborough capitalized on an idea and established artist - smart man. Think those two painting come to life like Night at the Museum?
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on January 30, 2015
ah, art history. I hated it. but I love the Blue Boy as Robin.
By: Ellen Abbott on January 30, 2015
I would buy your art history book in a New York Minute! Maybe you could intersperse it with the other stories especially those of your youth that we all enjoy. "Blue Boy" followed by a similar theme event in your life. etc. Well I would buy it.
By: Cranky on January 30, 2015
I certainly appreciate your in depth knowledge of art history. I enjoy your accounts more than the dry and boring books on the subject.
By: Daniel LaFrance on January 30, 2015
laughing at the last version. oh, my! :) interesting that he did a bit of borrowing on an earlier age for that painting.
By: TexWisGirl on January 30, 2015
What they do after the lights go out? Sounds like a Ben Stiller movie to me!
By: alp penwasser on January 30, 2015
I had no idea about all that. Funny that at another point in history, Gainsborough might never have been famous. It's also funny that the models seem to be slouching and deliberately making their bellies look big. Great post!
By: Lexa Cain on January 30, 2015
The Blue Boy has always been one of my favorites, along with Rembrandt's Night Watch!!
By: fishducky on January 30, 2015
What you teach about art is worth knowing!
By: mimi on January 30, 2015
I've said it before but where were you when I took Art Appreciation in college--Oh yeah probably contemplating preschool. I did zero in on the same thing Lexa did and was wondering why?.
By: Akansas Patti on January 30, 2015
I often wonder what these artists would think of our comments on their productions? Could they relate things which would change our views?
By: red on January 30, 2015
Love knowing this stuff. Too bad I won't remember it tomorrow. It's fascinating to know that it wasn't even the dress of the period. Great post. Thanks.
By: Bouncin Barb on January 30, 2015
I'm grateful my name isn't Buttall. Can you imagine Buttall Junebug? It doesn't work. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on January 30, 2015
My mom has Van Gogh's Sunflowers on her living room wall, over the couch that I swear is the same pattern as the one belonging to Al Bundy on Married With Children. Her tastes are a bit...eclectic.
By: Val on January 30, 2015
I'm with Cranky. I think your telling of art history would make many of us who don't get especially excited about it.. begin to listen up.
By: Hilary on January 30, 2015
oh my- we all learn so much from you! My Grandmother had a set of two decks of cards ( for playing bridge) and no kidding the cards had both Blue Boy but also Pinkie on the backs of these 2 decks. Amazing! Thanks for yet another art history lesson!
By: Kathe W. on January 30, 2015
Hello Friend! My mom went on a Blue Boy binge eons ago. Made these ginormous lamps. Had the framed prints hanging behind them. All sorts of little gee-gaws. I retained the 2 plates. Would that she had invested in the Robin print! ;) Have a wonderfully creative day! ~Mimi
By: Mimi Foxmorton on January 31, 2015
A most inretestin and fascinating post.
By: John on January 31, 2015
For all of my childhood my mother had quite a large copy of Pinkie hanging in the living room. I remember vaguely once my grandmother asking her something about where was she going to put Pinkie -- and the way she said it was with a warmth that made it sound like there was a personal resonance about the painting. There was a story there -- but I never thought to ask about it...
By: The Broad on January 31, 2015
Excellent. Love the killer thought at the end. Not sure about Robin (never was, actually).
By: Mike@A Bit About Britain on January 31, 2015
Fascinating! Thanks for my weekly art history lesson :)
By: The Bug on January 31, 2015
Assistants??? Painters had assistants??? Next thing you know, they'll tell us that Stephen King doesn't write all of his books...
By: Pixel Peeper on January 31, 2015
Interesting to read a blog and enjoy an art lesson. I have always liked Blue Boy at least to appreciate the skill of the artist. Interesting to me is the reminder that this was not actually a portrait, it was a boy posing. Hope things are going well for you and your family. We are already almost in the second month of this year.
By: CiCi on February 1, 2015
Apollo Belvedere? I really must change my name because it's nowhere near as good as that, and that one's no longer in use, so no one would mind if I took it.
By: Snowbrush on February 1, 2015
I wonder what actor Burt Ward might say about the last image?
By: Michael Manning on February 1, 2015
I wonder what actor Burt Ward might say about the last image?
By: Michael Manning on February 1, 2015
I never learned anything about this in school. My art history profs consider it beneath their dignity. This is fascinating. But I have to admit I especially love The Blue Boy Wonder in Green.
By: Mitchell is Moving on February 3, 2015
Hi! Did the Blue Boy hang in Trinity College, Cambridge UK around 2004? I visited there and saw it in the refectory, with security in place, so assumed it was the original. I was very excited about it at the time and boast about it to this day! Can you confirm if it was the original please!?
By: Vicky on February 21, 2016

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