This portrait is of the freed Amistad captive Cinque. Or at least that is what we are told. How do we know that this is what he actually looked like? Cameras were in their infancy, so we cannot look at another image to compare. And the toga-like garment and the scenery, was that all the artist’s imagination or is there some basis in fact?Well, it turns out Charlotte Cowles, in a letter to her brother April 12, 1841, gives us proof, as only Charlotte could.
Did I speak to you of the portrait of Cinque? Is it not splendid? He and all of them are highly delighted with it. If it were a mere fancy piece, it would be valuable as a specimen of the art; but the likeness is perfect, and the attitude most imposing—yet not too much so for him. The rest of the picture, which depended upon the artist’s taste, is all most admirable; the dress, the bamboo, and the African scenery in the back- ground. When it was shown to Cinque, he said,”oh, good, good.” I do not wonder he did.
I find it heartening to know that this rather iconic portrait pleased the sitter and the ever critical Charlotte. Even the background. Her skills of observation, particularly of human behavior, continue to astound me.