One of my favorite portraits is Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Omai, a Tahitian man in his early twenties. Omai had already led an adventurous life before he met Captain James Cook in 1769 and joined his third voyage, which took him to London in October 1774. Although presented as what John Dryden in his 1672 play The Conquest of Granada first termed a ‘noble savage’, Omai, a native of Raiatea, an island in French Polynesia, had experienced a less-than-noble existence before meeting Cook.
We know little about Omai’s family history. After his father, a landowner, was killed by warriors from the neighboring island of Borabora, Omai narrowly escaped and fled to Tahiti, where he worked briefly for a Roman Catholic priest. He misjudged the safety of returning to Raiatea, was captured and taken to Borabora, and escaped to another island, Huahine, just in time to avoid execution. At this point, Omai was 16. When I was 16, I might have been worried about the threat of nuclear war and friends being sent to Vietnam but fearing for my life and seeing family members murdered before my eyes would have constituted a completely foreign level of stress.
Omai, the second Pacific Islander to visit Europe, lived an existence lightyears away from the ‘noble savage’ life described by Jean Jacques Rousseau in Emile (1762) at a moment when such prescient individuals understood the destructive power of the Industrial Revolution and desperately sought counter-examples in non-Western cultures for a healthier trajectory for society. While living in a ‘state of nature’ certainly made Omai physically strong, and intellectually spry, the final stage of maturation, creating a “loving and feeling being,” was often more challenging given actual circumstances than naïve Europeans thought.
Reynolds struck a diplomatic balance between exoticism and familiarity in order to present Omai as a dignified, respectable, and sympathetic figure. The most sought-after portraitist of his time and a founder of England’s Royal Academy of Art, Reynolds knew exactly what he was doing. All we see of Omai are his head, hands, and feet. His thoughtful facial expression – gaze directed beyond the canvas confines – was a familiar sign of intellectual activity and mindfulness on an exotic, brown countenance, and his bare feet signaled naturalness and an unmediated connectedness to the earth. Omai’s hands are the most distinctive. The back of his left hand and his right forearm are decorated with tattoos and his fingernails are pointed, clear signs of exoticism. But Omai’s dress – a billowing, belted garment resembling a Roman toga, his turban – a kind of crown substitute that enhances his regal demeanor, and his posture – that of the iconic, second century B.C.E. Apollo Belvedere – provided emphatic, reassuring indications of civilization, ones that insert Omai into a grand, Western tradition and remove him from the contemporary world of powdered wigs, lacey shirts, and gold-braided embellished uniforms.
Although Reynolds presented Omai in a milieu intended as an authentic depiction of his homeland, with mountains, palm trees, stormy skies, and no sign of human activity, Reynolds conformed the setting to the landscape formula established in the seventeenth century by Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, with Omai bracketed by dark masses of palm trees and earth, while a lazy river leads the viewer’s eye toward a mountainous background whose distance is suggested by its atmospheric blueness.
London society embraced Omai, who evidenced a reserve and dignity it recognized as noble. He learned English quickly and met contemporary expectations concerning noble savagery, which delighted King George III and Queen Charlotte and resulted in numerous invitations to dinners and balls, where he was a prized guest. This bustling city of mud and carriages, shops and theater, populated by people wearing so much clothing and such a diverse assortment of it must have seemed exotic to Omai but we don’t know what thought. He returned to Polynesia two years later, enriched by a home, vineyard, and servants, gifts of his British friends. He had little time to enjoy it, however, since he died in November 1777 at the age of 26, just as mysterious and exotic as he arrived.
I admire Omai. I like that he was resourceful and that his early life experiences developed a quick wit and opened him to the possibilities of the world. Instead of nurturing self-assurance and curiosity, his dreadful and terrifying encounters could as easily have fostered fear and timidity. Although we can never know or understand Omai and one could examine the colonialist narrative into which Reynolds (and London society) inserted him, it is important to keep in mind that Omai hiad agency, he chose this adventure. When he, having taken from it all he desired, tired of his European sojourn, Omai returned to his homeland enriched materially but also undoubtedly spiritually and intellectually by experiences and impressions that transformed him into a kind of stranger there, a global citizen, with singular experiences that his native community could not fathom, just as London society could never understand the experiences he brought from the South Pacific. Contemplating this painting reminds me that we all have experiences, feelings, knowledge that are impossible to fully communicate, that, regardless of how integrated we are into our social setting, isolate us, make us unique, define who we are.