An Unlikely Pair of Portraits

May 30, 2014

The lovely lady with the eager look in her eyes is Etha Town, the daughter of Ithiel Town, a New Haven architect, and the inventor of the Town truss, used in covered bridges throughout the nineteenth century. The portrait of his daughter was painted in 1826, the year Etha married William Thompson Peters, a recent Yale graduate. She was 19 years old.

The handsome young man wearing a cloak draped across one shoulder is Cinque, the leader of the Amistad captives. Cinque and a group of his fellow Mende were kidnapped into slavery in Sierra Leone, but rebelled and seized the Spanish schooner Amistad. After the schooner landed in New London, pro-slavery advocates sought to charge the Mende with piracy and murder while abolitionists sympathetic to their plight backed their efforts to regain their freedom and return to Africa. Cinque’s portrait was made about 1840, when the controversy was at its height. He was probably about 26.

The two portraits were painted by the same artist, Nathaniel Jocelyn, a New Haven painter and engraver. The portrait of Etha Town was a private work and probably hung in the family parlor, known only to friends and relations. The portrait of Cinque was engraved so that it could be reproduced and the copies could be sold. It was a very public work of art, meant to present Cinque as an heroic figure to his admirers.

Etha Town Peters died in 1871 at the age of 64. One of her sons became an engraver. Cinque and the other Mende were freed and returned to Africa in 1842. Little is known of Cinque’s later life. He is said to have died at an American mission in 1879.

The original oil painting of Etha Town and a reproduction of the engraving of Cinque’s portrait are both on view in "Making Connecticut," an exhibition at the Connecticut Historical Society. The exhibition is open Tuesday through Friday 12-5 and Saturdays 9-5. Currently also on view is the temporary exhibition, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.