Poedua [Poetua], the daughter of Orio (b. circa 1758 - d. before 1788) ['Poedooa / Daughter of Oreo / Chief of Ulaietea one / of the Society Isles / 1777']

(Updated, March 2022) A three-quarter-length portrait of Poedua (or Poetua, the usual modern spelling), the 19-year-old daughter of Orio, chief of the Haamanino district of Raiatea (Ulietea), one of the Society Islands neighbouring Tahiti. Standing a little to the left, she is shown with her head slightly inclined, looking out of the picture to meet the gaze of the viewer. She wears a white drape of tapa cloth beneath her bare breasts and long black hair cascades over her shoulders. Cape jasmine blossom is positioned in her hair at her ears. Her right arm falls by her side and she holds a 'fly whisk' in her right hand, a mark of chiefly rank. Her left arm rests across her hips. Her arms and hands are covered with small tattoos. She is shown against an imaginary tropical background of sky and distant mountains with a plantain tree positioned on the left.

The portrait resulted from Captain Cook's third voyage 1776-80 and was one of the earliest images of a Polynesian woman produced by a European painter for a western audience. The purpose of Cook's voyages was to make particular discoveries in the Pacific and provide detailed information for the Admiralty on the coastlines and islands he explored. He took astronomers, other officers skilled in surveying, botanists and artists to record their findings. John Webber, the Anglo-Swiss artist on his third voyage in the 'Resolution' and 'Discovery' (the latter commanded by Lt Charles Clerke), graphically documented the expedition's progress to describe the landscape, inhabitants, costumes and dwellings encountered. These images were among the first pictures that enabled Europeans to gain an authentic idea of many Pacific islands and the north-west coast of America. Webber initially produced rapid pencil impressions and wash sketches and these formed the basis for more elaborate compositions, some worked up on the voyage and others later in London for publication. He also brought back about a dozen oil paintings and did more later in London. The finished works were shaped to conform with existing artistic conventions and often incorporated classical allusions.

Cook on this occasion moored his ships at Raiatea on 3 November 1777, remaining until 7 December. On 24 November, a midshipman, Alexander Mouat (son of a naval captain), and a gunner's mate, Thomas Shaw, deserted from 'Discovery'. To ensure their return, Cook enticed on board Orio's son and daughter, Ta-eura and Poedua, and the latter's husband, Moetua, and held them in Clerke's great cabin until this was accomplished. Webber took the opportunity to make a sketch of the young 'princess', who was known for her beauty and grace as a dancer, and whom Cook had first met on his second voyage in September 1773.

It has been suggested, based on the thinness of the paint and coarseness of the canvas, that this portrait was made on the voyage but while not impossible this is unlikely. It is much bigger and more finished than Webber's other known voyage oils, and almost certainly too big to have been painted in 'Discovery's' cabin, of which the height was little more than that of the canvas. Its safe transport thereafter would also have been inconvenient, at least. Moreover, two other versions of similar size are recorded. One is in the National Library of Australia: the other in private hands, signed and dated 1785, reappeared at Christie's, London, on 2 December 2008 (lot 27). These circumstances suggest that all were painted later in London from a now untraced original. The present painting is the best version and - if only on that ground, together with its original titled exhibition frame - is beyond reasonable doubt that exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1785. It is signed 'J Webber Pinx' (bottom right) and, though not dated, likely to be the one seen in Webber's studio on 4 March 1785 by the tourist Dorothy Richardson, who described it in her journal as 'An Oil painting of a woman of Otaheite, 1/2 length & as large as life, with white flowers for earrings; tho her complexion is copper colour, she is extremely handsome & graceful' (Hugh Belsey, 'Some artists' studios described in 1785', in 'Windows on that World: Essays on British Art presented to Brian Allen' [Paul Mellon Centre..., London, 2012] p. 124 citing Richardson's journal in the John Rylands University Library, Manchester). The 1785 sending-in date for Academy pictures by non-Academicians, (Webber only becoming an Associate later that year) was 6 April. The Academy show itself opened on Monday 25th, and Richardson also noted two other pictures that Webber exhibited that year (a view at Macao and one on Krakatoa), also waiting to be sent in on the 6th. Since all three were acquired by the Admiralty - even if not , as usually assumed, specifically painted for it - this would have been from the Academy show. This one must therefore reasonably be considered the exhibited version and the others later replicas (which they also appear from their more mechanical quality), despite Belsey favouring the one resold in 2008 as the exhibited version.

Webber has adapted a pose with strong allusions to the attitude of Venus Pudica, the 'modest Venus' (or 'Medici Venus', from the ownership of one marble version). Through such classical statuary, regarded in the 18th century as a model of female beauty, he implies that Poedua stands for womanly beauty. This affirms the comparison between the South Seas as an idealized idyll and perceptions of the classical. Webber may also have had in mind the portrait of Omai (Mae), the young Tahitian man painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and exhibited at the Royal Academy in May 1776. This must have been seen by Webber immediately before he set sail, since his work in the same exhibition had led to his recruitment for the third voyage, which itself returned Omai to Tahiti. Reynolds positions Omai wearing loose robes and a turban, adopting an attitude influenced by the Apollo Belvedere and demonstrating the idea of natural man developed by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Both portraits reflect the western thirst for knowledge of these new territories and their cultures.

Yet the portrait of Poedua also reflects the demands of the conventions of the Royal Academy. So it can be read on several levels, from a portrayal of a woman indigenous to the South Seas to a deliberate transformation of an image of an unfortunate captive. At the same time Poedua is also an allegory of the feminine image of beauty from the South Seas evoked for a European audience. This approach positions her as a studio model, not an individual Tahitian woman of noble birth. This can imply she stands for womanly beauty and therefore the object of male desire, since Venus was also the goddess of love and fertility. (Poedua herself was in fact pregnant when Webber painted her.) The exotic elements of the figure are suggestively blended into a mood of sensuous eroticism evoked by the lush, alien vegetation and sultry sky. This heady mix, implying the sensuous delectation of the male gaze distorts the interpretation. Tahitian women were a constant presence on the ships and so Poedua is made to represent all the women of her race, despite her married status and the presence of her husband on board. The enigmatic quality of her facial expression, signals the dichotomy: is she submissive in captivity or defiant? She confronts the viewer's gaze and the typical Venus pose has been altered to underscore the ambiguity. The positioning of her arms can also be read as sensuous but also distancing. The artist has shown the tattoos and jasmine flowers to imply both difference and personal adornment. The meaning of the tattoos is unclear to European eyes but may have marked either membership of a particular cult group or personal preference. Likewise the flowers are ambiguous, with Dorothy Richardson's description of them as 'earrings' being suggestive. Polynesian adornment usually prioritised assymetry, such that only one flower would be worn, usually on the left if married, and the right if single. The inclusion of two flowers here plays to European understanding of earrings, as well as continuing the ambiguous presentation of Poedua's status and individuality.

The two oils of Macao (ZBA7955) and Krakatoa island (ZBA7953) that Richardson also saw in Webber's studio in March 1785 were exhibited, with Poedua, at the RA in 1785. All three were subsequently part of the Admiralty and later Ministry of Defence collection until permanently transferred to the NMM in 2017. Another of Tahiti that Richardson also noted on her studio visit in 1785 is now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

Object Details

ID: BHC2957
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Pacific Encounters Gallery
Creator: Webber, John
Date made: circa 1784; 1777 1781-84
Exhibition: Art for the Nation; Ministry of Defence Art Collection The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768-80
People: Princess Poedua of Raiatea Island
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 1454 x 959 mm; Frame: 1675 x 1170 x 115 mm + cartouche of H160 mm; Weight: 44 kg

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