The Portrait of Mai
The painting has been secured for the UK by a historic fundraising campaign.
Sir Joshua Reynolds’ spectacular Portrait of Mai (Omai) holds a pivotal place in global art history, depicting the first Polynesian to visit Britain, and is widely regarded as the finest portrait by one of Britain’s greatest artists.
Known as “Omai” in England, Mai (ca. 1753-1779) was a native of Raiatea, an island now part of French Polynesia, who travelled from Tahiti to England with Captain James Cook. He spent the years 1774-76 in London, where he was received by royalty and the intellectual elite, and indeed became something of a celebrity. Mai returned to his homeland in 1777 and died there two years later.
We are pleased to announce that the innovative collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery and Getty to jointly acquire the painting has been successful following a historic fundraising campaign. The two institutions will share the painting for public exhibition, research and conservation care, enabling and maximising public access to the work in perpetuity.
The painting will first be exhibited here at the Gallery in time for our opening before being shown at other institutions across the UK. Mai will travel periodically between the two countries, sharing time equally between them, including being displayed in the Getty Museum when Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Olympic Games. Our attention now turns to planning and raising funds for a National Sharing Programme so that this extraordinary work is shared with partners whilst in the UK.
“Reynolds’ majestic Portrait of Mai is by far the most significant acquisition the National Portrait Gallery has ever made, and the largest acquisition the UK has ever made, along with the Titians acquired by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland in 2009 and 2012. I would like to thank the 2,000 Art Fund members and National Portrait Gallery supporters across the UK and the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund for their significant and historic grants as well as the many other generous supporters. This includes major contributions from the Portrait Fund, Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation and Julia and Hans Rausing, and support from the Idan and Batia Ofer Family Foundation and the David and Emma Verey Charitable Trust. Together, you have made such an unprecedented endeavour possible. My thanks also to Getty for having the vision to join us in an innovative strategic partnership to ensure this uniquely important painting enters public ownership for the first time, in Reynolds’ 300th anniversary year, so its beauty can be seen and enjoyed by everyone. Heartfelt thanks too to my wonderful colleagues and everyone who worked night and day to make the impossible possible – they have done something extraordinary for all of us.”
Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery