This portrait of Omai by Sir Joshua Reynolds was sold by Sothebys on 29th November 2001 for £10.343,500, six and a half times more than had previously been paid at auction for this artist. The price is the second highest ever paid for any British painting, just short of the £10.7m paid for Constable's The Lock in 1990.
The estimate had been £6-8m. It was described in the auction as Lot 12: Portrait of Omai, full length, standing in a landscape, wearing robes and a headdress, oil on canvas, 90 in by 57 in.
The portrait was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776 and then not again until the great "European Masters of the Eighteenth Century" exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1954. It was exhibited in Birmingham in 1961 and in Auckland City Art Gallery, New Zealand, in 1977 in an exhibition devoted to Omai both in the context of Tahiti and of England. In 1985-6 it was one of the highlights of the great Reynolds exhibition, which was shown both in Paris and in London.
Omai was seen in London as the epitome of the Noble Savage, a concept popular in Europe at the time and much popularised by Rousseau. His fine attributes seemed to go back to an imaginary primeval innocence, a Golden Age before civilisation was able to corrupt him. This innate nobility is superbly captured by Reynolds in his portrait. The pose in the portrait is strongly influenced by the celebrated Apollo Belvedere, a statue greatly admired by Reynolds. It is not certain exactly when Reynolds painted Omai as his pocket books for 1774-1776 are missing.
In 1776 The Morning Post declared it a "strong likeness and finely painted" and Walpole, often a stern critic, judged it "very good". Reynolds exhibited twelve other portraits that year, including such other outstanding works as David Garrick and The Duchess of Devonshire. He was at the height of his powers. It seems unlikely that the portrait was a specific commission, as it remained in the artist's studio until his death and formed part of the studio sale at Greenwood's on 16th April 1796, where it was bought by the dealer Michael Bryan, for 100 guineas, who sold it a few months later to Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle, a notable collector and connoisseur. The portrait of Omai was one of eight pictures by Reynolds owned by Carlisle. It remained in the family at Castle Howard, Yorkshire until this sale by the Honourable Simon Howard. He faces huge bills for tax and "family" reasons, thought to be related to his recent divorce. Another four paintings by Reynolds remain at Castle Howard.
The painting has been bought by the London dealer, Guy Morrison, amid reports that his client had pulled out of the deal. He described it as "probably the most exciting painting to come onto the market in London for 25 years" and said he had other potential clients.
From information supplied by Cameron Evans, Richard Hindle, Cliff Thornton and Wendy Wales
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 1917, volume 25, number 1 (2002).
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