Latest National Portrait Gallery acquisition secured for the UK by a historic fundraising campaign
Updated: May 16
Joshua Reynolds's portrait of Mai was jointly acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and Getty.
The innovative collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery and Getty to jointly acquire Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai (Omai) has been successful.
The National Portrait Gallery has raised £25 million which, thanks in huge part to a grant of £10m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, an Art Fund grant of £2.5m, together with a matching amount from Getty in the US, makes up the £50m needed to acquire the painting.
The National Portrait Gallery and Art Fund’s fundraising campaign has been made possible thanks to an extraordinary collaborative effort, including:
• An exceptional grant of £10m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, one of its most significant awards for saving a heritage treasure for the UK
• An Art Fund grant of £2.5m, the largest in its history
• Major contributions were also received from The Portrait Fund, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation and Julia and Hans Rausing, and support also came from the Idan and Batia Ofer Family Foundation and David & Emma Verey Charitable Trust, as well as many other generous trusts, foundations and individuals.
• Donations from over 2,000 Art Fund members, National Portrait Gallery supporters and members of the public, giving gifts of all sizes.
The shared ownership of the work and strategic partnership between the National Portrait
Gallery and Getty is the result of an innovative model of international collaboration that enables and maximizes public access to the work in perpetuity. The two institutions will share the painting for public exhibition, research, and conservation care.
The painting will first be exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery when it reopens on 22 June, following a major transformation project, and will later be shown at other institutions across the UK.Mai will travel periodically between the two countries, sharing time equally between them. The first Getty presentation will be in 2026, including the period when Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Olympic Games.
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 traveled 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.
Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, said: “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. Latest National Portrait Gallery acquisition was secured for the UK by a historic fundraising campaign
Reynolds painted Mai while at the height of his creative powers, exhibiting the portrait at the
Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1776. He portrayed his imposing subject barefoot before a tropical landscape, dressed in flowing robes, including a traditional tapa (bark-cloth) sash, and a headdress (Mai is known to have dressed in British clothes while in London). His pose and hand gestures were probably inspired by the Apollo Belvedere, then one of the most admired antique sculptures, celebrated by Winckelmann in 1755 as the classical epitome of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.” While Mai’s face affects a distant, heroic gaze and bears the hallmarks of idealization, there is an unmistakable individuality in his strong facial features and tattooed hands.
Reynolds, who apparently painted Mai’s portrait for personal reasons, kept the picture in his
London studio until his death in 1792. It was shortly after acquired by Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle, who installed it in his country estate, Castle Howard, in Yorkshire, England. The painting remained there until 2001, when it was acquired at auction by a private collector, who offered it for sale.