Mai (Omai)

© National Portrait Gallery, London. Purchased jointly by the Board of Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery and the J. Paul Getty Trust, 2023. Support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund and other generous supporters provided t

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Mai (Omai)

by Sir Joshua Reynolds
oil on canvas, circa 1776
92 7/8 in. x 57 1/4 in. (2360 mm x 1455 mm) overall
Purchased jointly with the J. Paul Getty Trust, with significant support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund, major contributions from the Portrait Fund, Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation and the Hans and Julia Rausing Charitable Trust, and support from the Idan and Batia Ofer Family Foundation and the David and Emma Verey Charitable Trust, alongside contributions following an appeal by the National Portrait Gallery and Art Fund, 2023
Primary Collection
NPG 7153

On display in Room 18 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • Mai (Omai) (circa 1753-circa 1780), First Polynesian to visit England. Sitter in 7 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), Painter and first President of the Royal Academy. Artist or producer associated with 1424 portraits, Sitter associated with 39 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Reynolds painted this majestic portrait without commission to capitalise on Mai’s celebrity and it dominated the 1776 Royal Academy exhibition. Exceptional in many ways, it was the first British portrait to represent a person of colour with grandeur, dignity and authority. The painting was not sold during Reynolds’ lifetime, instead he kept it on display in his studio in Leicester Square as the premier example of his skill and creativity. Mixing aspects of classical sculpture and costume with individual details, like Polynesian tapa cloth and Mai’s tattoos, this portrait conveys the moment when two worlds encountered each other for the first time.

Events of 1776back to top

Current affairs

Tahitian visitor to London Omai returns home with Captain James Cook on his third voyage. During his two-year stay he inspired a play and was painted by Joshua Reynolds.
Member of Parliament David Hartley unsuccessfully introduces a motion to the House of Commons calling for the abolition of the slave trade.

Art and science

Edward Gibbon produces the first volume of his monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Artist John Constable is born.
Scottish economist Adam Smith analyses the nature and causes of prosperity in his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations.

International

American War of Independence: George Washington raises a new American flag on Prospect Hill, Boston. In an anonymous pamphlet entitled Common Sense, English immigrant Thomas Paine is the first to argue that the American colonies should be independent. Declaration of American Independence on 4 July.

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