"Mai" Debuts at National Portrait Gallery
|Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Mai (center, about 1776) as installed at National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: David Parry|
Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Mai is now a centerpiece of the National Portrait Gallery's reinstallation, opening June 22 in London. Co-owned with the Getty, the portrait will first appear in Los Angeles for a three-year period starting in 2026.
Portrait of Mai was the subject of hyperbolic praise during the NPG's fund-raising campaign. It was called Reynolds' greatest painting, one of the greatest of all British paintings, and "by far the most significant acquisition the gallery has ever made" (in the words of NPG director Nicholas Cullinan). Jonathan Jones' Guardian review offers this tart dissent:
"…it’s not a painting that holds your gaze long. Reynolds is such a cardboard artist. He gives Mai nobility, for sure–why wouldn’t he?–but his style is so lacking in painterly nuance that all you can really do is 'like' it and move on. Perhaps Reynolds has found his moment in the social media age when quick moral judgements are replacing ambiguous aesthetic encounters. Really loved this 18th century image of diversity! #Enlightenment."
Other reviewers have commented on the placement of Reynolds' youthful self-portrait on the wall opposite Mai. The artist, shading his eyes, seems to be looking at the Pacific Islander—or maybe, the future.
|Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait, 1747-1749. National Portrait Gallery, London|