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Four Elements

Moses Williams

by Synatra Smith, Ph.D. on 2021-06-24T12:00:00-04:00 in Black Artists | Comments

Revolutionary-era silhouettist Moses Williams was a manumitted African American man known for his mastery of profile cutting.[1] He was born in 1777, and as an infant he and his enslaved parents were sold to Charles Willson Peale as partial payment from a Maryland plantation owner in exchange for a portrait. In accordance with Pennsylvania’s 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, Williams’s parents were emancipated upon their twenty-eighth birthdays, at which time Williams was eleven and remained enslaved to Peale. Instead of being taught how to paint—as Peale’s children were—Williams was trained on a physiognotrace to cut the complex outlines of a sitter’s profile out of a piece of white paper; the silhouette was then laid on top of a black piece of paper to reveal the image. He would cut portraits for visitors to Peale’s eponymous museum in Philadelphia for eight cents per souvenir.[2] Recognizing the value of these portraits, Peale emancipated Williams in 1802 at age twenty-seven instead of age twenty-eight as specified by Pennsylvania law.[3] Williams continued to work at the Peale Museum to produce portraits and assist with other museum tasks, but the date of his death is unknown.[4] 

 

PMA Collection *Sample of the forty-three pieces in collection 

 

Notes

[1] Chernick 2018; DuBois Shaw 2006; Farago 2015.

[2] Chernick 2018; DuBois Shaw 2006. 

[3] Chernick 2018; DuBois Shaw 2006; Farago 2015.

[4]Chernick 2018; DuBois Shaw 2006.

 

References

Chernick, Karen. 2018. “Once the Slave of an American Painter, Moses Williams Forged His Own Artistic Career.” Artsy. Accessed March 29, 2021. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-slave-american-painter-moses-williams-forged-artistic-career.

 

DuBois Shaw, Gwendolyn. 2006. “‘Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles’: Silhouette and African American Identity in the Early Republic.” In Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century. Andover, MA: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy; Seattle: in association with University of Washington Press.


Farago, Jason. 2015. “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art Review—Not Bold, But Dutiful.” Guardian. Accessed March 29, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jan/16/represent-african-american-art-review.


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