Reynolds' New Masterpiece

From Experiment in Savagery to Icon of the Eighteenth Century

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Joshua Reynolds' 1775 portrait of Mai [Omai], the first Pacific Islander to visit Britain, has attracted much public attention since 2001, when it sold for a near record-breaking £10.3 million. Omai's recent celebrity is based on the view that it is not only an 'icon' of British art but also of crucial significance as a reminder of an enlightened world we have lost. The critical heritage of Reynolds' Omai, however, indicates a rather more complex aesthetic and historical assessment. This article analyses the sources of the disjuncture between past judgements and today's soaring esteem. In doing so, it introduces for comparison another much-neglected Reynolds portrait of a New World traveller, entitled Scyacust Ukah.


Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of History, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry (A14), University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia;, Email:

Publication date: June 1, 2010

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