Long before photography, silhouette portraits were quite popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were not only inexpensive to produce, but they were also simple to make. Many homes in Philadelphia during the time had silhouettes. Moses Williams, a former slave who sculpted thousands of silhouettes in the Peale’s Museum, owned by his former slaveowner and well-known artist Charles Willson Peale, was responsible for it all.
Williams, who was born into slavery in 1777 and traded to Peale as an infant in exchange for a picture, was born into slavery in 1777. Peale was also handed Williams’ parents, Lucy and Scarborough, as payment for the image. When a Pennsylvania statute requiring enslaved individuals to be emancipated at the age of 28 was passed in 1780, Williams’ parents became free, leaving him at the age of 11 to grow up in Peale’s household with the latter’s children.
Almost every Peale youngster learned a skill. He taught them and gave them names like Peter Paul Rubens, Sofonisba Anguissola, Titian, Raphael, and Angelica Kauffman after famous artists. Williams was also educated in the arts. Williams, on the other hand, was only given the physiognotrace, a silhouette-making machine, while Peale’s children studied painting.
According to artsy.net, the apparatus traced the outline of a sitter’s face on a piece of paper, which could subsequently be cut out to create a silhouette portrait.
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, a professor of American art history at the University of Pennsylvania, observed, “While these white members of the household were given a full palette of colors with which to express themselves creatively, the slave was consigned to the mechanistic blackness of the silhouette.” “It effectively put him out of any major creative and financial competition with the others.”
Williams’ progress as an artist was not hampered by this. When he was released in 1802 at the age of 27, he started his shop in Peale’s Museum. In his first year at the museum, Williams sold almost 8,000 silhouettes for eight cents apiece. He then married Maria, a White woman who had previously worked as a cook for the Peales.
Even though Williams was able to purchase a two-story home with the money he earned from his artwork, he did not earn nearly as much as Peale because silhouettes were considered a lesser art form.
In an 1857 journal article cited by artsy.net, Peale’s son Rembrandt explained the distinctions between painted and silhouette portraits: “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 duty of a portrait painter, on the other hand, is entirely different—it requires technique, taste, thought, and judgment.”
Despite the fact that silhouette portraits were not considered a superior art form at the time, people couldn’t deny Williams’ portraits‘ “accuracy.” “The perfection of Moses’s cutting sustains [the physiognotrace’s] repute of precise likeness,” Peale remarked in 1807.
Williams was never given credit for his portraits, which is a shame. JSTOR Daily noted, “Each was simply stamped “Museum,” so his identification as an artist was disguised.” Furthermore, when photography became popular in the early 1840s, Williams’ services were essentially obsolete. Williams had to sell the two-story brick house he built with his earnings from cutting silhouettes since he had no other way of making a steady income.
Until recently, the African-American profile cutter was nearly forgotten. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, features his work.