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.”