Once the Slave of an American Painter, Moses Williams Forged His Own Artistic Career

Karen Chernick
Feb 19, 2018 1:00PM

Moses Williams, Angelica Peale Robinson, After 1803. Gift of the McNeil Americana Collection, 2009. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Moses Williams, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), After 1803. Gift of the McNeil Americana Collection, 2009. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At Philadelphia’s Peale Museum, gold-framed portraits painted and displayed by Charles Willson Peale—celebrated Revolutionary-era artist, known for dozens of depictions of George Washington—could cost upwards of one hundred dollars.

By contrast, a selection of cut-paper portraits, which sold at the far end of the museum’s long, single-room gallery, were quite a bargain. For just eight cents, visitors could have their features memorialized by African American silhouettist Moses Williams as early as 1802. He produced thousands of hollow-cut silhouette profiles over the following two decades, recognizably capturing the precise slope of a forehead or the pout of a lip using just two pieces of paper. Williams’s paper-cutting stand quickly became an attraction that boosted museum attendance—many visitors came to see his work first and Peale’s artwork second.

The relationship between Williams and Peale was a complicated one. Born into slavery around 1775, Williams was traded to Peale as an infant in partial payment for a portrait of a Maryland plantation owner. Williams’s parents, Lucy and Scarborough, were also part of the transaction, and there is evidence that Peale continued to accept slaves as payment for artworks or drawing lessons. Williams’s parents were later freed by Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery—a law passed in 1780 requiring enslaved people be freed at age 28—thus leaving the 11-year-old Williams to grow up in Peale’s home amongst the artist’s 17 children.

Moses Williams, Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), After 1803. Gift of the McNeil Americana Collection, 2009. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Moses Williams. Rubens Peale (1784-1865), After 1803. Gift of the McNeil Americana Collection, 2009. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Williams was close to many of them in age, just six months older than Rembrandt Peale (who would go to become a portraitist himself). But whereas the elder Peale trained his natural children to become America’s first artistic dynasty—even naming them after great artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Raphael, Sofonisba Anguissola, and Angelica Kauffman—Williams was not offered the same education.

“While these white members of the household were given a full palette of colors with which to express themselves artistically, the slave was relegated to the mechanized blackness of the silhouette,” writes Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, a professor of American art history at the University of Pennsylvania. “It effectively removed him from any significant artistic and financial competition with the others.”

Rather than teaching Williams how to paint, Peale introduced the boy to the physiognotrace––a device that traced the outline of a sitter’s face on a piece of paper, which could then be cut out to produce a silhouette portrait. When Williams was freed by Peale at age 27, a year before the legal requirement, it was with the suggestion that he use his newly acquired skills to set up a silhouette shop at the Peale Museum (where he also occasionally assisted with taxidermy, object display, and promoting exhibitions). With his ability to produce popular souvenirs at a heavily trafficked spot, Williams could support himself financially and start a family.

Moses Williams, Admission Ticket to Peale's Museum, 1794. Gift of Jack L. Lindsey in honor of H. Richard Dietrich, Jr., and Robert L. McNeil, Jr., 1997.  Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Peale Museum was located on the second floor of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, above the historic chamber where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Museum visitors may have associated the building with the radical idea that the document espoused: that all men were created equal. Similarly, silhouette portraits were a democratic art form that foreshadowed the widespread popularity of photography. Unlike their oil-painted counterparts, they were inexpensive to produce, did not require costly materials, and were within reach for most of the population.

“Profiles are seen in nearly every house in the United States of America,” Peale wrote in an 1805 letter to John Hawkins, the inventor of the physiognotrace used by Williams. “Never did any invention of making the likeness of men, meet so general approbation as [the physiognotrace] has done.”

Yet, popular or not, Williams had to produce infinitely more portraits than Peale in order to earn a fraction of his income. (Eight cents a portrait does not a wealthy man make.) Furthermore, silhouettes were considered a lower art form. Peale’s son Rembrandt, who made both painted and silhouette portraits, enumerated the differences. “Profiles cut with the physiognotrace, silhouettes, and pencil sketches, as well as daguerreotypes and photographs, all have their relative merit; and as memorials of regard, are not to be despised,” he wrote in an 1857 journal article. “The task of the portrait painter is quite another thing—an effort of skill, taste, mind, and judgment.”

It would be a century before cut paper reached fine art status. The colorful paper shapes that Henri Matisse created at the end of his career are today considered as masterful as his paintings on canvas. Cut paper silhouettes specifically have resurfaced in the works of contemporary African-American artist Kara Walker, who subverts the medium to depict the realities of slavery and racial stereotypes.

This, of course, came too late for Williams. The advent of photography in the early 1840s eventually rendered his profession obsolete. He went broke, and with little other professional training to secure an income, he sold the two-story brick house he had originally purchased with his earnings from cutting silhouettes.

Today, Williams’s remaining paper profiles—each roughly the size of a Peale Museum admission ticket—trace a small outline of his legacy. And, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, several of these silhouettes once again share a gallery with Peale’s portraits—only this time, they’re framed and mounted side by side.

Karen Chernick