Martin Postle comments on Omai’s appearance:
“In Reynold’s portrait Omai wears flowing white robes, clothes that to European eyes resemble a classical toga. However, as Pacific historians have pointed out, they do relate to Tahitian dress, the sash and turban probably being made of tapa, a cloth made from tree bark. The robes were probably of Omai’s own creation, designed to reinforce the view that he was of high rank in his own society. Omai is thus endowed with what Reynolds referred to as a ‘general air of the antique’. At the same time, Reynolds makes no attempt to disguise the tattoos on Omai’s hands and arms, which remain in full view ‘for the sake of likeness’….Omai’s gestures do not imply command but rather are used to display, like stigmata, the body markings that indelibly single him out from his European counterparts. Thus, Reynolds ennobles Omai using the vocabulary of Western art, while at the same time drawing attention to the features which distinguish him from Western society.”
Martin Postle, ed. Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity. Exhibition catalogue. London: Tate, 2005, 218.
Omai, 1780. Mezzotint, The British Museum, London. Engraved by Johann Jacobé, published by John Boydell.