Huntington’s “Blinking Sam” Is a Meme

Reynolds, "Sam Johnson"

“Blinking Sam”—the Joshua Reynolds portrait of Samuel Johnson owned by the Huntington since 2006—has become a meme. Internet commenters use the c. 1775 painting to marvel at the sheer idiocy of whatever they’re just read. Above is Blinking Sam on bathroom laws, but the meme goes back a decade. It appears to have started not with Johnson but with… Ronald McDonald?

According to Know Your Meme, Japanese illustrator Masao created an image of Ronald McDonald in August 2006. The huckster-clown is shown reading the “death note,” a primal groan of madness from the 1984 manga Kaijin Gonzui [“Gonzui the Fisherman”] by George Akiyama.

Ronald McDonald

The Japanese thought-bubble was soon replaced by the English “What the fuck am I reading?” It was first used on 4chan as an eye-roll at another user’s post.

The WTF? meme went recombinant, adopting other host images from animé and animation.

Blue pony

Spiderman WTF

Enter “Blinking Sam.” Reynolds did four portraits of his friend Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first definitive English dictionary. The Huntington’s version is the only one showing Johnson reading. Johnson was severely nearsighted, so he presses the book to his face. When Johnson objected that Reynolds was capturing his “defects” for posterity, it was pointed out that Reynolds had acknowledged his own poor hearing in a self-portrait (the artist holds a hand to his ear). Johnson snapped, “He may paint himself as deaf if he chooses, but I will not be Blinking Sam.”

Johnson’s myopia forced a tight close-up more characteristic of graphic novels than grand-manner portraits. Blinking Sam was thus a natural for the WTF? meme. Probably another factor was the popularity of the Joseph Ducreux meme. It was already a viral-culture axiom that 18th-century dudes+21st-century profanity=big laffs+page views.

WTF Memes

The Sam Johnson meme is now so familiar to its core audience that the WTF? is understood. Witness the bathroom bill image above. Meanwhile, a subgenre of the meme combines the Huntington portrait with the one at Tate Britain, London. The Tate portrait has a notably sour expression. Johnson is wearing a similar red jacket in both, allowing the two paintings to read as panels of a comic.

Huntington-Tate memes

Better yet, someone morphed the two Reynolds paintings for a GIF. It’s meme without words, an all-purpose comment for the age of post-innocence.


(Reynolds’ “Blinking Sam” portrait of Samuel Johnson is on view on the first floor of the Huntington Gallery, San Marino.)

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