Silhouette portraits were very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries long before photography. Apart from not being expensive to produce, they were also very easy to make. In Philadelphia, many households at the time had silhouettes. And it was all thanks to Moses Williams, a formerly enslaved man who created thousands of silhouettes at the Peale’s Museum, owned by his former slaveowner and well-known artist Charles Willson Peale.
Williams, who was born into slavery in 1777, was traded to Peale while Williams was an infant in partial payment for a portrait. Williams’s parents, Lucy and Scarborough, were also given to Peale as payment for the said portrait. In 1780 when a law was passed in Pennsylvania requiring enslaved people to be freed at age 28, Williams’ parents became free, leaving him when he was only 11 to grow up in Peale’s household with the latter’s children.
Almost every child of Peale learned an art. He trained them and even named them after famous artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Sofonisba Anguissola, Titian, Raphael, and Angelica Kauffman. Williams was also taught art. However, while Peale’s children studied painting, Williams was only given the physiognotrace, a silhouette-making machine.
The device traced the outline of a sitter’s face on a piece of paper, which could then be cut out to produce a silhouette portrait, according to artsy.net.
“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,” Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, a professor of American art history at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote. “It effectively removed him from any significant artistic and financial competition with the others.”
But that did not hinder Williams’ progress as an artist. He set up shop within Peale’s Museum when he was freed in 1802 at the age of 27. Williams produced more than 8,000 silhouettes for eight cents each in his first year working at the museum. He subsequently got married to Maria, a White woman who had worked as a cook for the Peales.
And even though Williams was able to buy a two-story house from the money he earned from his artwork, he did not earn much like Peale because silhouettes were seen as a lower art form.
Peale’s son Rembrandt explained the differences between painted and silhouette portraits in an 1857 journal article cited by artsy.net: “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. The task of the portrait painter is quite another thing—an effort of skill, taste, mind, and judgment.”
Despite silhouette portraits not being seen as a superior art form at the time, many couldn’t deny the “precision” in Williams’s portraits. Peale in 1807 wrote that “the perfection of Moses’s cutting supports [the physiognotrace’s] reputation of correct likeness.”
Sadly, Williams never got credit for his portraits. “Each was just stamped “Museum,” so his attribution as an artist was obscured,” JSTOR Daily wrote. What’s more, as photography emerged in the early 1840s, Williams’ services were basically no longer needed. Having no other means to earn a stable income, Williams had to sell the two-story brick house he bought with his earnings from cutting silhouettes.
The African-American profile cutter was almost forgotten until recently. His work is featured in Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.