Impressions of Liberty
On July 31, 1766, six African American slaves were sold on this site. They were part of the estate of Samuel Finley (1715–1766), a noted theologian and the fifth president of Princeton (then the College of New Jersey). The intertwined histories of these seven individuals lend a specific and personal narrative to the institution of slavery in the University’s history.
Impressions of Liberty responds to the archival records of this sale, presenting a monumental bust of Finley carved into a block of wood as an inversion, a sculptural absence. Framed against this hollow form are the portraits, etched in glass, of an African American man, woman, and child. Whereas the form for Finley’s bust is drawn from his official University portraits, contemporary actors in eighteenth-century costume stand in for the enslaved individuals, for whom no images remain. Sycamore wood encases the monument, symbolically linking it to the nearby sycamore trees, which were planted during Finley’s tenure. The sculpture raises questions about who is remembered and who is invisible in our accounts of history, both written and visual.
The history of this auction was unearthed as part of the Princeton & Slavery Project, a campus-wide initiative to research, discuss, and contend with the realities of slavery in Princeton’s history. Within this context, the Princeton University Art Museum commissioned Impressions of Liberty, installed November 6th, 2017 at Maclean House, the historical residence of its subjects, before entering the Museum’s collections.