It may not be true that, as the adage has it, every picture tells a story, but if pictures have any tales to tell, then Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Omai has a richer and stranger one than most.
Reynolds (1723-92), the renowned English portrait painter, was the subject of an exhibition at Tate Britain last year. The theme of the London show was “the creation of celebrity,” and all the luminaries of the painter’s day (cognoscenti, statesmen, actresses and aristocrats) were brilliantly portrayed. But only one picture, a life-size portrait of the young Polynesian Omai, had an entire wall to itself.
Richard Connaughton’s admirably thorough and lucid volume relates the story behind the painting, or rather the story of the person in it. Omai (whose real name was probably “Mai”) was born on Raiatea, one of the Society Islands, in about 1753. During his youth, the island was attacked by another tribe that murdered Omai’s father and drove the family from their native lands. It is likely that Omai was seeking a way to revenge himself upon his enemies when he made friends with the British.
Captain James Cook (1728-79) was on his second voyage of exploration in the South Seas when he visited Tahiti, to which Omai had fled. Cook’s mission was to discover the location of Terra Australis, an unknown continent, on behalf of Britain, but he welcomed the chance to replenish his supplies on the island. Cook had been to Tahiti previously, on a scientific expedition, to observe an eclipse of the sun, and knew some of the native customs.
Polynesian culture has given us the words “taboo” and “tattoo,” which feature strongly in the author’s description of the social customs. On the one hand, it was a strictly hierarchical society, in which Omai’s place, as a sort of landless yeoman, was now somewhere near the bottom. On the other hand, communication with outsiders could only be conducted with gestures and the exchanges of gifts. Sexual favors were granted freely by the natives, who continually stole the visitors’ possessions.
Omai did not appeal personally to “Toote,” as he referred to the explorer (there being no equivalent sounds for “Cook” in the Polynesian tongue), but begged the captain of a second ship to take him back to England. The young man was placed on the vessel accompanying Cook’s, arriving in England in 1774. He evidently did not acquire much English during either the long voyage or his two-year sojourn in the country.
A well-made, spirited and physically courageous young man, Omai became quite popular among the seamen. Once in England, he was feted as a curiosity by the highest members of society, and even the king took an interest in his welfare. He seems to have instinctively acquired good manners, and was found enchanting by high-class ladies, with some of whom there were rumors of liaisons.
It was in these circumstances that Omai had his portrait painted, barefoot, in the white robes and white turban of a Tahitian prince or noble. Lionized at an impressionable age, and loaded with gifts for his return, he was scarcely equipped for a smooth reintegration.
Settled with two Maori boys picked up in New Zealand, Omai (aka “Omy” and “Omiah”), died a few years after going back, probably in 1780.
Connaughton sets this fascinating, sad and salutary story in the context of 18th-century debate about the “noble savage.” The triumph and tragedy still resonate in tales of celebrity today. The picture itself, long a favorite of the painter’s, sold for £10 million in 2001, but was refused an export license and so remains in Britain.