Gainsborough’s Blue Boy: The Private Life of a Masterpiece

After Blue Boy arrived in the United States, he rose to fame, appearing on ceramics, textiles, and thousands of reproduction prints. Its interpretation by its new host country has also been subject to the winds of cultural change. According to Hedquist, a formative episode was the so-called “lavender scare” in the 1950s, during which gay men and women were seen as threats to national security and driven from government offices. Common stereotypes of gay behavior – now laughable in their ignorance – such as lacy cuffs and fancy shoes, have been cited as signifiers of these “enemies within”.

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This led to grim comic parodies of perceived gay behavior in popular culture, with outlets such as comic books. In Mad Magazine in September 1970, a cartoon featured a character called Prissy Percy, who is teased by a group of all-American sports boys – the final scene reveals that Percy is Blue Boy. The cartoon’s secret message and sentiment is homophobic; Hedquist sees it as Blue Boy’s first “release”. A Dennis the Menace cartoon released in 1976 also featured the Blue Boy, where he was again referred to as a “chicken”.

“Emerging ideas about how people view gay men are so important to the Blue Boy becoming an iconic image,” says Hedquist, “first as a source of ridicule, then as a reappropriation.”

The reappropriation came in the form of a gay magazine first published in 1974, called “Blue Boy”. The cover of the first issue featured a photo of Dale, a boxer from Ohio, in homage to Gainsborough’s masterpiece, but without pants and with a conveniently repositioned hat. The magazine, the brainchild of entrepreneur Don N Embinder, continued to appear until December 2007 and advertised products and services whose recurring symbol was the Blue Boy. He recommended gay-friendly hotels and bars and fostered a sense of community. “The first gay travel company was called ‘Blue Boy,'” says Hedquist. “They had cruises and hotels where men could be openly gay, wearing ‘Blue Boy’ t-shirts and carrying ‘Blue Boy’ travel bags. It was a complete reappropriation and celebration that the Blue Boy was gay.” In the period following the Stonewall Riots, it was a galvanizing symbol and left a legacy of several “Blue Boy” gay bars around the world.

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