Why You Should View the Mai (Omai) Portrait


By Rania Ades

6/25/20233 min read

Stepping into the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) located at the heart of Central London on the afternoon of the reopening of the Gallery, you can tell the mood was electric. A multitude of art lovers and enthusiasts from around the world, were all, like me, eager to be a part of the long awaited moment when the Gallery re-opened its doors to the Public following from just over a three-year closure period for refurbishment.

The transformative project, known as Inspiring People, comprises major building refurbishment works, the creation of a new learning centre and public spaces, significant enhancement to the entrance and the public forecourt, and last but not least, a full re-presentation of the Gallery’s collection.

The Inspiring People project was made possible by generous grants from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Ross Foundation and David and Molly Lowell Borthwick. This impressive transformative project is the design of Jamie Fobert Architects.

The Princess of Wales Reopens the NPG

On the 20th of June 2023, HRH the Princess of Wales, a Patron of the Gallery, ceremonially reopened the NPG ahead of the public reopening on the 22nd of June 2023. The Princess visited the new learning Centre (The Mildred and Simon Palley), participated in a multi-sensory workshop for nursery children, Her Royal Highness also viewed the Mai (Omai) portrait, one of the NPG’s most recent exciting acquisitions.

The Mai (Omai) Portrait

Relieved to have located the famous NPG escalator with relative ease in spite of having not visited the NPG for the past 3 years due to its closure in the spring of 2020, I made my way all the way up to the third floor. After indulging in the beauty of some of the old favourite Portraits for a while, here I finally was in front of the long anticipated Mai (Omai) portrait.

A native of Raiatea, an island nowadays part of French Polynesia, Mai (1753–1779), came from Tahiti to England with Captain James Cook. Known in England as “Omai”, Mai quickly became a celebrity. The first Polynesian to ever visit Britain, Mai sparked the attention of the Royalty and the elite.

The majestic Portrait of Mai, a world renowned masterpiece by Sir Joshua Reynolds, has a significant place on the global art stage. Reynolds met Mai in 1774 and was amazed by his exotic appearance and interesting stories. Before making the portrait, Reynolds made sketches of Mai using both oils and pencil.

Mai’s portrait is a full length portrait that allows you to see Mai’s full body. Reynolds’ choice to show Mai in a heroic pose “the Apollo Belvedere” pose added a touch of grandeur to the over 7-foot high imposing portrait. Reynolds realistic portrayal of Mai managed to capture his soul particularly with a dazzling hint of a smile that captured Mai’s essence.

Reynolds’ renowned attention to detail can perhaps best be seen in Mai’s clothes, with his amazing fine details of the folds of fabric, Mai’s tattoos, and the draperies. Reynolds play with light and shadow added an intriguing depth to the portrait. Mai’s portrait is a testament to the great value, timeless beauty, relevance and endurance of classical portraiture.

Reynolds portrait of Mai sparked increasing interest among western artists in exotic foreign subjects. It aroused their curiosity about foreign cultures and non-western beauty. This timeless work of art had an evident and enduring influence on their subsequent works. African, Asian and indigenous peoples were all increasingly depicted in Western art in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In March the NPG announced a partnership with LA’s Getty Museum to jointly acquire this fascinating oil painting to the tune of £50m. This historic collaboration between the NPG and Getty successfully secured this sensational masterpiece for the UK. Context, the Portrait of Mai is widely considered as the finest portrait to ever have been painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the greatest British artists. NPG and Getty jointly secured this truly exceptional work of art following from a historic fundraising campaign.

Shared for Public Exhibition

If you are in London, pop into the NPG and view the Mai while you still can. The NPG and Getty plan to share the Mai (Omai) painting for public exhibition. The painting will first be on display at the NPG for the reopening, then it will make its way to various other UK institutions. It is noteworthy to mention that The Mai (Omai) portrait will be exhibited at the Getty Museum in LA when the city hosts the Olympic Games in 2028.

The Portrait of Mai
The Portrait of Mai

Why You Should View the Mai (Omai) Portrait

How a Historic Fundraising Campaign Secured the Majestic Portrait of Mai for the UK

Image: The Portrait of Mai © Rania Ades - Author