Poedooa, daughter of Orea, King of Ulietea, Society Islands is one of a number of works produced as a result of Captain James Cook’s voyages to the South Pacific. John Webber first painted Poedooa’s portrait in 1777 during the three days when she, her husband and her brother were hostages on board the Discovery as Cook pressured her father into returning two deserters. She was 15 at the time, and pregnant.
John Webber served as official draughtsman on Cook’s third Pacific voyage, which he made to search for a navigable North-West Passage between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Artists had accompanied Cook on each of his earlier Pacific voyages, but Webber – trained at Bern and Paris in both landscape painting and portraiture – was his closest collaborator, supplying images to correct ‘the unavoidable imperfections of written accounts … to preserve, and to bring home, such drawings of the most memorable scenes’ so that the voyage could be made ‘entertaining to the generality of readers’.1
Between 1776 and 1780, Webber produced nearly 200 works of art and numerous coastal profiles and natural history subjects. Amongst these works were 19 oil portraits, including one of Poedooa. In all, three portraits of Poedooa are known to exist, and the coarse canvas and thinly applied paint of the version in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England suggests that it is the original, delivered to the Admiralty in fulfilment of Webber’s commission. This version, painted after Webber’s return to England, concentrates on Poedooa’s exotic physical charms but fails to reproduce the complex and challenging gaze of the original. It was shown at the Royal Academy in 1785.
Rex Nan Kivell purchased this painting in 1965 for his magnificent ‘Australasian’ Collection. It is one of a number of highly significant paintings from the collection that have been shown at the National Gallery of Australia since 1994.
Michelle Hetherington 2002
1 James Cook and James King, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean: Undertaken by the command of His Majesty, for making discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere ... performed under the direction of Captains Cook, Clerke, and Gore in his Majesty’s ships the Resolution and Discovery: in the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779 and 1780, London: printed by W. and A. Strahan for G. Nicol and T. Cadell, 1784, 3 vols.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002