Joshua Reynolds’s “Portrait of Mai (Omai)” is considered Britain’s earliest portrait of a person of color. In an innovative arrangement, it will travel between London and Los Angeles.
In a highly unusual move, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the National Portrait Gallery in London will jointly buy Joshua Reynolds’s “Portrait of Mai (Omai),” considered the earliest portrait of a person of color in British art history.
In a deal announced on Friday, the painting will be sold for 50 million pounds, or about $62 million. The two museums will each pay half the cost.
The work, which was painted around 1776 and depicts an 18th-century Polynesian man standing barefoot and wearing flowing white robes, “will travel periodically” between Britain and the United States, according to a news release announcing the deal.
Although the painting was long known as “Portrait of Omai,” the man depicted was actually named Mai. In 1773, he traveled to Britain seeking help to drive rival islanders from his homeland. He soon became a well-known figure in London, meeting King George III and being painted by Reynolds.
Nicholas Cullinan, the National Portrait Gallery’s director, said in a telephone interview that the deal, which will bring the work out of private ownership for the first time, was significant on several levels. The painting “is a supreme work of art,” he said, noting that Reynolds was so proud of it that he kept it for himself until his death. The work could also spark important discussions about world history and European colonialism, Cullinan said.
Since the first public art museums were founded, most have sought to own artworks outright, seeing their collections as essential to attracting visitors. But there have been other recent examples of major institutions sharing ownership.
In 2009, the National Gallery in London and National Galleries of Scotland jointly bought Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon.” Three years later, they followed that with the joint acquisition of the same artist’s “Diana and Callisto.” In 2015, the Dutch and French governments agreed to jointly buy two portraits by Rembrandt to prevent the countries’ museums from falling into a bidding war. The Louvre in Paris and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam now share the works.
The expensive acquisition of “Portrait of Mai” is even more unusual than those deals, since it comes at a moment when many museums are in a tight financial position, with rising inflation hampering their recovery after prolonged closures during the coronavirus pandemic.
For the past year, the National Portrait Gallery tried to raise the 50 million pounds alone, hoping to buy Reynolds’s work from its private owner, reported by The Financial Times and other publications to be John Magnier, an Irish business magnate and owner of a leading racehorse stud. The British government placed an export bar on the painting, preventing it from leaving Britain.
But the museum struggled to raise even half the money, and was able to secure the funding with the Getty’s involvement. (The National Portrait Gallery must still raise just under 1 million pounds, about $1.2 million, to complete the purchase.)
Katherine E. Fleming, president and chief executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust, said in an interview that sharing ownership of the painting would “maximize accessibility and viewership of this masterpiece.” The agreement is a “great new model for thinking about ownership” of artworks, she said, adding that she hoped other institutions would follow suit.