Brynn Hatton on Titus Kaphar

September 2015 • Brynn Hatton


The story goes that, while looking at a portrait by Titus Kaphar hanging in the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, a man named Benjamin Vesper suffered a sudden psychotic break and attacked the painting. The man was hospitalized but later escaped, and was eventually found squatting in an abandoned nineteenth-century house that he insisted belonged to his family. The history goes that the ancestral Vespers were a well-to-do, mixed-race family living in Reconstruction-era Connecticut. Their light skin allowed them to “pass” as white until an unplanned pregnancy thwarted the proposed marriage between a Vesper daughter and the son of a wealthy white shipping magnate, ultimately exposing the Vesper family’s racial secret and hurtling them into financial and social ruin.