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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 



[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.



Chernick, Karen. 2018. “Once the Slave of an American Painter, Moses Williams Forged His Own Artistic Career.” Artsy. Accessed March 29, 2021.


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.

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