"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


I've never been a fan of salon-style hangs, where paintings hang 15 feet above the viewer’s head. So few museums do it now, for obvious reasons.
How are we supposed to appreciate the color changes?; the brushwork?; the intimacy?
This arrangement works well enough in an aristocratic house, where succeeding owners hoarded umpteen hundreds of not very good pictures, and where the schlock looked middlingly decent only when viewed from afar...way afar.
The only major US venue that I know of that still does it is MFA Boston. But there it's far worse, because the pictures that are distant are actually good.
Where do they find these people?
Oh, sorry. The Walters in Baltimore does it, too.
No doubt there are more.
Anonymous said…
The NPG's display format also shows how such a museum has more stuff than it knows what to do with. The Reynolds is a dime a dozen in the UK's capital city, whereas, by contrast, it will be surrounded by relatively meager pickings at the Getty. Or if it were at LACMA, etc.

Since museums like the Louvre or NPG are the opposite extreme, appreciating their holdings is prone to visual exhaustion or creative desensitization.

Re "Since museums like the Louvre or NPG are the opposite extreme, appreciating their holdings is prone to visual exhaustion or creative desensitization.": That sounds like a champagne problem. I, myself, allot about 20 hours of Louvre viewing when I visit Paris. In the course of a week, I go daily...late, to avoid the hordes. And I'm never overwhelmed.
On your 100th visit, you'll have seen it all, perhaps.
Enjoy your time.
Anonymous said…

I wouldn't put much stock in Jonathan Jones opinion. Although his prose is sometimes entertaining.

He is yet another art commentator who seems to have egg on their face.

In 2005 he wrote yet another long long long piece (again in the Guardian) going on about Reynolds and how inconsequential an artist he was. And that not a single one of his pictures would ever be remembered.


He must be truly irked( it shows Jonathan!) that in the 300th year of Reynolds birth anniversary all the media can talk about is the 'great' Reynolds and how Portrait of Mai is one of the greatest pictures ever to come out of British Art! Jonathan must be spinning!!

Another who daily reminds us of the extraordinarily handsome Mai's flaws-be it his hand or the price paid-is Neil Jaffares.

I really think some in the stuffy British art trade and media are really stunned and shell shocked by how Portrait of Mai has become such a talked about and famous picture (something likely to keep on growing). They just cannot believe or accept it.

Regarding the hang I do agree it is overcrowded. But in defence of the NPG I would say they are remaining faithful to the way pictures were hung at the Royal Academy for the great exhibitions in Reynolds days.
Anonymous said…

Echoing above comment about how Reynolds is back!

Today's article in UK's Spectator magazine:

Joshua Reynolds's revival
Anonymous said…
The British have made a pretty big deal in the media congratulating themselves by saving this first British portrait of a POC, as if it was a win for diversity and inclusion. But who exactly does Portrait of Omai appeal to? Not likely Pacific Islander museum-goers who can identify the misidentification of their culture and will roll their eyes at Reynold’s hodgepodge portrayal of Orientalism. Maybe they didn’t get the memo that noble savage portrayals should be seen as a complement? The whole thing reeks of clueless limousine liberals feeling good about themselves in thinking this is an example of inclusion, and unaware that it’s a patronizing painting that panders to the white gaze.

Also, Reynolds is the most drab, boring painter. A huge misstep by the Getty, which seems to be stuck making unexciting (and in this case 1/2) purchases for the past year.
Anonymous said…
It is correct to say portrait of Mai is not Polynesian at all. It is more an overly beautiful/embellished image of a man from the 'East'.

But this does not take away from the fact that it is a very powerful and moving image. And that no other artist, other than Reynolds, in the 18th century ever created such an image on such a scale. Mai was never made to be a contender for the best supporting Oscar rather, unashamedly, Reynolds created this 18th century POC for the Best actor, Best Picture, Best director....for all the Academy awards! And that for that time was original, exciting and daring.

I saw the picture at the NPG last Saturday. The room where it hangs was completely packed. It was, by far, the most crowded room in the whole gallery. Asians, Americans, Europeans,Arabs, pensioners, teenagers, children. All there-taking selfies, videos or just awestruck-by one picture:Mai.

Like the picture or hate it, there can be no doubt that the Getty has bought 50 percent of pure Superstar gold!

Popular Posts