Two Questions About Reynolds' "Portrait of Mai"
|Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Mai (Omai), about 1776. National Portrait Gallery, London, and Getty Museum|
(1) Is $62 million way too much to pay for a Joshua Reynolds painting? (2) Is it insane to ship a painting between London and Los Angeles in perpetuity?
Britain's National Portrait Gallery and the Getty will be sharing ownership of Reynolds' Portrait of Mai, depicting one of the first Pacific Islanders to visit England. Mai ("Omai," or most properly Ma'i) was born on Raiatea, an island near Tahiti. He escaped slavery after Chief Puni of Bora Bora conquered Raiatea in 1763. Mai encountered Captain Cook's expedition in Tahiti and talked himself into a post as a seaman for the return voyage. He presented himself as expert navigator.
Mai's people skills were better than his navigation skills. He charmed the crew and, after landing in 1774, London society. Some mistook him for island aristocracy. "There was nothing regal or patrician about Mai," wrote historian Hampton Sides. "He was a nobody who happened to hitch an epic ride to England, a regular guy who went on a most excellent adventure."
Mai's aim was to secure Western military aid to repel the Bora Borans. He found however that the British insisted on viewing him as a specimen of Rousseau's "noble savage." They did not want to hear that Tahiti was a rat race.
|Joshua Reynolds, Omai of the Friendly Isles, about 1774. National Library of Australia|
|Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Samuel Johnson, 1775. Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens|
Rousseau held that people are naturally good and that it is civilization that corrupts. Mai's amiability, intelligence (he beat Europeans at chess), and good looks were taken as proof. One skeptic was dictionary maven Samuel Johnson, a friend of Reynolds. Johnson countered that people are determined by their environment. Mai moved in London's best circles, so he acted as a perfect British gentleman. Mai seemed to offer the British multivalent proof of all their social theories.
When presented to King George III, Mai announced, "Sir, you are king of England, king of Tahiti. I am your subject, come here for gunpowder to destroy the people of Bora Bora, our enemy."
It was a bad time to ask for regime change. George had rebellious American subjects to worry about. Ultimately George's Britain granted Mai a golden parachute. The islander was returned to the neutral island of Huahine on Captain Cook's third expedition to Polynesia. Cook set Mai up in British style, in a McManor House with Maori servants.
The West next heard of Mai from the notorious Captain Bligh. When The Bounty docked in Tahiti, in 1789, Bligh learned that Mai had died two and a half years after his return to Polynesia—maybe three years after Reynold completed his portrait. Mai would have been about 28 years old. (Compare Thomas Lawrence's Pinkie, dead practically before her portrait's paint was dry, at age 12.)
Portrait of Mai becomes the Getty's only work by Joshua Reynolds. J. Paul Getty lived in England and bought British artists from Hogarth to Walter Sickert. But his museum has shied away from building this part of the painting collection in deference to the Huntington's unmatchable holdings. The main exceptions were two Turner landscapes acquired from British collections (each occasioning UK demands to "save" the Turners for the nation).
|Joshua Reynolds, Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, 1783-1784. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens|
British media have described Portrait of Mai as Reynolds' greatest painting. That of course is a matter of taste. A century ago, when Henry Huntington bought Reynolds' Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, it too was the stuff of superlatives. Thomas Lawrence had rated Sarah Siddons as "indisputably the finest female portrait in the world"—better, in other words, than the Mona Lisa.
|Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Frederick, 5th Earl of Carlisle, 1769. Tate Gallery|
That leads us to (1), the price of £50 million/$62 million. There aren't any direct comparatives. The second highest amount ever paid for a Reynolds painting is $14.6 million… for this same painting. The current seller, Irish billionaire John Magnier, paid that when he bought it in 2001.
(Let no one take that as proof that art is a great investment. Magnier's profit amounts to a 7.4 percent annualized return. He could have realized 7.6 percent by investing in an S&P 500 index fund over the same period.)
Supply and demand set prices, and when it comes to Reynolds, there's a lot of supply. The prolific artist ran an efficient studio and accommodated half a dozen sitters a day. Most of today's billionaires prefer contemporary art. Reynolds' full-figures of run-of-the-mill aristocrats sell for seven figures (or less, sometimes a lot less). The Portrait of Mai was long at Castle Howard, the exterior shot for the Jeremy Irons Brideshead Revisited TV series. Another Castle Howard Reynolds, Portrait of Frederick, 5th Earl of Carlisle, shows the aristocrat who bought Portrait of Mai after the artist's death. In 2016 Frederick's portrait was valued at $6.1 million in lieu of inheritance tax. If that's a fair valuation for a great Reynolds, then the £50 million price for Portrait of Mai is due less to Reynolds than to its subject's resonance with 21st-century museum audiences.
Western museums are striving to diversify their collections with early portraits of persons of color. They have often had to settle for pictures by third-rate artists. An example is a painting bought by LACMA last year. It is believed to be British painter William Armfield Hobday's 1815 portrait of the American-Haitian educator Prince Saunders. Like Mai, Saunders was feted in London. Unlike Reynolds, Hobday was "an exceptionally minor early nineteenth century portrait painter," as Britain's export case hearing for the LACMA picture bluntly puts it. "Hobday's work cannot be said to possess great aesthetic merit."
|Left: Attributed to Allan Ramsay, Portrait of an African, about 1758. Royal Albert Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter|
Right: Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Ignatius Sancho, 1768. National Gallery of Canada
UK and US media (including The New York Times, see correction) have described Mai as Britain's first painting of a person of color. It's not that. Pocahontas visited England in 1616-1617, and her likeness, in British finery, was recorded in a famous engraving suspected to be based on a lost painting. A surviving Portrait of an African is attributed to Allan Ramsay and dated around 1758. It may depict Ignatius Sancho, a early abolitionist and author. Gainsborough painted Sancho a decade later.
|Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of a Man, Probably Francis Barber, about 1770. The Menil Collection, Houston|
A few years after that Reynolds painted a Black man believed to be Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson's Jamaican servant and heir. The painting is lost, but the Menil Collection has a brilliant sketch.
|Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Wang-y-Tong, 1776. Knole, Kent, National Trust|
Reynolds also painted one of the earliest Chinese visitors to Britain, known as Wang-y-Tong. His portrait is a character study reflecting European conceptions of chinoiserie. It may have been made while Reynolds was working on Portrait of Mai.
Portrait of Mai stands apart in scale (full-length and life-size), classicism (the Apollo Belvedere with tats) and apparent sympathy with the subject. The painting was not commissioned, and Reynolds kept it in his studio throughout his life. The portrait is a fiction, as Reynolds' major portraits generally are. Mai wore English clothes in London, and complained they were miserably uncomfortable. Reynolds imagines Mai in a globalizing costume combining toga, turban, and kapa cloth sash. It is the first grand manner portrait of a Pacific Islander, and certainly the first by a British artist of Reynolds' stature.
It's not surprising that Portrait of Mai commanded a premium over a more typical Reynolds. But £50 million still seems high. My reading is that NPG director Nicholas Cullinan really, really wanted this painting and knew that Magnier was a wild card. The tycoon had spurned the Tate Gallery's 2002 offer of £12.5 million. Cullinan offered a price that Magnier would understand to be more than he could likely get on the international market. This secured Magnier's patience and cooperation during a long fund drive.
The NPG would have bought Mai on its own, had the fundraising gods allowed. The Getty was brought in as a partner of last resort. At that, the deal almost fell apart last December, when one of the UK funders, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, objected that the painting should stay on British soil.
The National Heritage Memorial Fund is now on board, and its chair Simon Thurley is among those praising the joint purchase in the Getty/NPG press release. The word innovative appears six times. Historian and NPG trustee Simon Sebag-Montefiore calls the partnership "an innovative deal that itself will be a model for the future." For Timothy Potts, it's "an innovative model that we hope will encourage others to think creatively about how major works of art can most effectively be shared."
(2) Is this innovative model scalable? There are other art-sharing arrangements in the UK, Europe, and greater L.A. (where the Getty and the Norton Simon museum have been time-sharing a Poussin painting and a Degas pastel since the 1980s). Sharing across continents rather than freeways amplifies the risks.
The Getty was thwarted in its bid to acquire Canova's sculptural masterpiece, The Three Graces. The British government repeatedly delayed export, allowing it to be purchased jointly in 1994 by the National Gallery of Scotland and the V&A Museum, London. The sculpture rotates between the two museums. In 1998 a new hairline crack was discovered in the marble. "To be honest, it would have been much safer in the Getty," said Duncan McMillan, director of the University of Edinburgh's gallery.
That's a marble statue that weighs nearly a ton. A closer analogy to Mai is Gainsborough's Blue Boy. In 2022 the Huntington lent Blue Boy to the U.K. National Gallery. There was alarming dissent over the loan's safety, with dueling panels of experts. Blue Boy made it back in one piece.
Sharing is good. In some cases, joint ownership is a no-brainer, as when museums share video or conceptual works that don't entail moving physical objects. For older, more fragile works, sharing comes with risk. The Getty-NPG partnership apparently envisions shipping Mai across the globe ~20 times a century, forever. What happens, should Mai one day be judged too fragile to travel anymore?
The two museums are evidently satisfied that any such eventuality is a long way off. But there are risks any time an artwork is moved. We accept them in order to have loan exhibitions that advance scholarship and to bring art to parts of the world where it's not normally on view.
Say the Yale Center for British Art wanted Mai for an exhibition. Would they get it, even though it might come out of one co-owner's term, and fewer people would see it in New Haven? What if the Tate, Met, and National Gallery of Australia wanted Mai for a Reynolds mega-show touring for multiple years? It would be like holiday arrangements for divorced families. It could be worked out, but it adds a layer of complication that's not there with a single owner/lender.
My sense is that the NPG-Getty deal means Mai will spend a lot of time in London and L.A., but loans elsewhere may be less frequent than they might have been otherwise. There are other ways to share. Nothing prevents a single owner from being super-generous with loans and ensuring that valued artworks are seen throughout the world. That too is a model worth considering.
|Elizabeth Peyton, Omai (Afterlife) after Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Omai, 1776, 2023. Peyton is among the many artists supporting the NPG's Mai acquisition. © Elizabeth Peyton. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner|