Polynesia: The National Portrait Gallery in London seeks to acquire the portrait of Omai, worth 58 million euros

It is described as one of the greatest portraits ever painted. The work of Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Omai (1776), is at the center of the attention of the National Portrait Gallery in London, which wishes to acquire it for the modest sum of just over 58 million euros, the call price. If the operation is a success, it will be the second most expensive portrait purchased by this art museum, founded in 1856, after the acquisition of the portrait Diana and Actaeon in 2009.

Last March, the English government temporarily banned the export of Omai’s portrait until July. Not having found a buyer on this date, the British authorities have extended the ban to March 2023. A new deadline which will probably give time to the National Portrait Gallery in London to raise the funds necessary for its acquisition. The stated goal here: to keep this masterpiece by Joshua Reynolds in the UK and let potential public buyers bid higher.

Omai is known to have been one of the first Polynesians, if not the first, to have set foot on European soil. Born in Raiatea (Leeward Islands) around 1751, Omai settled on the island of Tahiti in his early teens and served the Tahitian chiefdoms as a tahu’a (healer). In 1773, Omai embarked on the HMS Adventure, under the command of Captain Tobias Furneaux, and part of Captain Cook’s expedition to the Pacific.

Omai (left) with Sir Joseph Banks and Dr. Daniel Solander, by William Parry (1775-76)

From 1774 to 1776, Omai lived in London with Sir Joseph Banks as his guide. A stay that aroused the curiosity and imagination of the British, while the Tahitian integrated into high society. Omai joined Polynesia in 1776, still with Captain James Cook, and remained on the island of Huahine until his death, probably in 1779. Omai was not the only Polynesian to have traveled with Captain Cook since Tupaia, also from Raiatea, he guided the navigator across the Pacific, from the Hawaiian Islands to New Zealand, where he became a historical figure among the Maori.

For the National Portrait Gallery, the acquisition of such a masterpiece would be a major event. A museum spokesperson describes it as a ” singular painting of national, international and cultural significance “. A feeling shared by the British authorities who underline his ” outstanding importance in the study of 18th-century art, especially portraiture and calls it ” prominent work in the study of colonialism and empire, scientific exploration and Pacific history “.

According to the Quotidien de l’Art, the National Portrait Gallery relies on the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and private donors, and could ask the State for a special grant to raise the sum. Indeed, the art museum is not alone in wanting to acquire the portrait of Omai.

Joshua Reynolds

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