Joshua Reynolds’s ‘Portrait of Mai’ could visit its Polynesian homeland


The successful acquisition of Portrait of Mai paves the way for a loan of the Joshua Reynolds masterpiece to Polynesia. In June the painting was unveiled at the reopening of London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG), following a three-year refurbishment of the museum.

The projected loan would be to French Polynesia’s main museum, Te Fare Iamanaha/Musée de Tahiti et des Îles, which is based just outside the capital Papeete, on the island of Tahiti. It reopened last March after a significant expansion, and now has the environmental and security conditions for major international loans.

Mai (often known as Omai) was born in around 1751 on the island of Raiatea, 200km north-west of Tahiti. In 1773 he sailed with Captain Cook for England, where he was painted by Reynolds, and he died there six years later.

Last April it was announced that Portrait of Mai had been jointly acquired by the NPG and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for £50m. In an unusual arrangement, it will travel between the two venues every few years. Initially the portrait will be on display at the NPG, before touring to museums in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. After that it will go to the Getty in 2026, probably for three years.

A Polynesian loan has been mooted, although no formal request has been made. It might take place in the late 2020s, after the Los Angeles presentation. The NPG is believed to be open to the idea, which would be arranged in conjunction with the Getty.

Steven Hooper, a Pacific specialist at the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, in Norwich, welcomes the idea, saying it would be “intriguing” for people in Polynesia to see an image of their “first visitor to England”.


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