A painting described as “one of the most important, influential portraits in the history of British art” is to remain on public display after it was jointly bought by the UK’s National Portrait Gallery and the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Joshua Reynolds’ 7ft high 1774 portrait of the first Polynesian man to visit Britain is both spiritually breathtaking and, as the country’s first grand portrayal of a non-white subject, culturally important.
Previously called Portrait of Omai, it will now be known as Portrait of Mai (Omai), reflecting the subject’s true name.
The picture has been owned since 2001 by the Irish businessman and horse stud owner John Magnier and his decision to sell meant there was a real chance of it going into private hands and perhaps never publicly being seen again.
The National Portrait Gallery launched a last-ditch bid to raise £50m to prevent that happening.
On Tuesday it was announced that it had gone into an unusual and “innovative” partnership with the Getty in Los Angeles to successfully acquire the painting.
Each museum will share the cost, with UK money coming from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (£10m) and £2.5m from the Art Fund, the largest grant in its 120-year history. There were also contributions from foundations, trusts and members of the public.
The plan now is for the two institutions to share the painting, with it being exhibited in London when the portrait gallery reopens in June after its three-year closure for major redevelopment.
Nicholas Cullinan, director of the NPG, said the portrait was a majestic one and the most significant acquisition the gallery had ever made.
He thanked everyone who had contributed cash. “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.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Timothy Potts, director of the Getty. “Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai is not only one of the greatest masterpieces of British art, but also the most tangible and visually compelling manifestation of Europe’s first encounters with the peoples of the Pacific islands.
“The myriad artistic, historical, and cultural issues that Mai’s portrait raises for 21st century viewers and researchers will be the starting point for a joint research project led by the gallery and Getty in the years ahead.”
The news was welcomed by artists including Sir Antony Gormley. He said: “It’s good news that this significant work can be shown as part of our national collection of portraits.
“It may well be the first time that the English establishment represented a member of a tribal society with dignity and respect. Here is an alternative way of being: Mai’s open and engaging face complimented by his hands; one open to the world in a gesture of giving, the other protective, showing knuckle tattoos and his bare feet firmly in touch with the earth.”
After its display in London the portrait will be shown at other galleries in the UK. It will be shared equally with the US and be on display in California from 2026, coinciding with Los Angeles hosting the 2028 Olympic Games.
The painting is considered one of Reynolds’ greatest portraits and depicts Mai, who travelled from Tahiti to England with Captain James Cook.
He became a celebrity and it was said that when he was presented to George III, he took the royal hand and said: “How do, King Tosh!”