(b. 1751, London, d. 1793, London)

Portrait of Poedua

Oil on canvas, 142 x 94 cm
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Captain Cook's three voyages (1768-79), and the expedition of the Frenchman Comte de La Pérouse (1785-88) attracted huge international attention. They were accompanied by artists and scientists and the voyages documented in illustrated publications.

The artist chosen to join Cook's third Pacific voyage (1776-79), the Swiss John Webber was hired as an illustrator, to prepare plates for the account Cook intended to publish when he returned. His many detailed drawings focus mainly on the life and habits of the local peoples. Webber's illustrations turned out as Cook would have wished, but Webber wanted to make exhibition pictures from his experiences, and Cook would have been less pleased with some of these. Poedua, the chief's daughter from the Society Islands whose portrait appeared in the Academy in 1785, had in fact been one of Cook's hostages, and Webber painted her while she was locked in his quarters. But, for his London audience, she stands in a lush Tahitian setting, bare-breasted, mysteriously smiling, a Pacific Mona Lisa.