(London) The famous painting Portrait of May (Omai) by British painter Joshua Reynolds, which until now has always belonged to private owners, was acquired for 50 million pounds ($85 million) by several institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery, the latter announced on Tuesday.
The acquisition of this work mobilized the London public museum, which brought together 25 million pounds, and other cultural institutions such as the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and the Getty Museum in the United States.
The painting, which depicts a life-size Polynesian youth named Mai (also called Omai), barefoot and wearing a white turban and oriental-inspired garment, is considered one of Joshua Reynolds’ major works, whose 300th birthday is celebrated this year.
This young man, discovered by explorers on an island near Tahiti and brought back to England in 1774 by the explorer James Cook, caused a sensation.
He had spent three years in London, where he had met King George III, who had invited him to the grand opening ceremony of the session of parliament, and attended literary evenings.
He finally returned home in 1777.
The portrait, considered the archetype of the “noble savage” in 17th century Britain, was the centerpiece of the “Reynolds Room” in Castle Howard, owned by the Earls of Carlisle family since the 1790s .
In 2001, the canvas fetched more than 10 million pounds ($17 million) at auction by a London art dealer.
“Portrait of Mai (Omai)” will be shown to the public from June 22 on the occasion of the reopening of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) after three years of work.
The work will also be exhibited “periodically” in the United States beginning in 2026, the NPG and the Getty Museum said in a joint statement.
NPG director Nicholas Cullinan called it “by far the most significant acquisition” made by the museum.
The government had banned the canvas from leaving the UK, with the Department of Culture saying it was “inextricably linked to the great voyages of exploration and discovery” of the country.
British historians had argued that acquiring Portrait of Mai (Omai) could help the UK “research its past and understand who we are as a nation”.
In recent years, the country has increasingly come to terms with its colonial past and its involvement in slavery.