November 22, 2017

“Impressions of Liberty” at PU’s Maclean House

A new sculpture by leading American artist Titus Kaphar (born 1976) has been installed in front of Princeton University’s Maclean House, which was originally constructed as the president’s home in the institution’s early decades. The eight-foot-high mixed-media work, entitled Impressions of Liberty, features layered portraits of Reverend Samuel Finley, president of what was then the College of New Jersey from 1761 to 1766, and an African American man, woman, and child, who represent the slaves who lived and worked at the president’s residence during Finley’s tenure.

Commissioned by the Princeton University Art Museum, the Kaphar work forms the conceptual core of the Museum’s engagement with a campus-wide conversation, the Princeton & Slavery Project, that examines the ties of early University trustees, presidents, faculty, and students to the institution of slavery. The Museum asked Kaphar to create a work of art that would engage with historical records, figures, and events specific to Princeton’s early history that were unearthed through the efforts of the Project. The work will enter the Museum’s collections following the six-week installation.

Through its use of symbolic materials, layered figures and illumination, Impressions of Liberty aims to invert the relationship between the entrenched heroic image of a founding father, the typical subject of public monuments, and the human slaves who once inhabited the property. A composite portrait bust of Finley is carved in negative relief, coated with a graphite facade and encased in sycamore wood, echoing the sycamore trees — known as the trees of liberty — near which it stands. Three actors dressed in costumes of period house servants were photographed as a symbolic slave family and appear in the foreground, in a life-size portrait etched in glass, overlaid on the carved portrait of Finley and illuminated from behind.