Moses Williams (1777-c. 1825)
Dr. James Hunter Fayssoux, after 1802
Hollow-cut silhouette on paper, 12.4x10 cm
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the McNeil Americana Collection, 2009-18-42(99)
DescriptionThe relationship between the silhouettes and their author, Moses Williams, is a testament to the complex role of racial identity in early America. Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825) was the son of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) and a renowned early American painter. Raphaelle, like Moses Williams, was also trained as a profile cutter. Williams was raised in slavery alongside Raphaelle and the other Peale children yet later became their collaborator. Williams was trained in taxidermy and museological display with the Peales, but unlike the Peale children, Williams was not taught the higher art of painting. Raphaelle promoted the physiognotrace with his father and was sent to Monticello to produce a silhouette of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). However, Charles Willson Peale credited Williams’ skill for the success of the physiognotrace.
The silhouettes of Dr. James Foster Fayssoux, Hannah Brown and Captain Robert Gill were made at Peale’s Museum. Peale sought to display the “world in miniature.” With the creation of each profile, the visitor entered into Peale’s collection, extending the museum into the socio-political world beyond its walls. An estimated 8,000 silhouettes were produced a year, many by Moses Williams. Theoretically, a silhouette taken from the actual contours of the face functioned as an authentic physical imprint of the sitter’s identity. However, Williams was known to frequently deviate from the machine’s guidelines to create the desired image, particularly when representing hair, clothing, and other details.
Researcher: Jennifer Donnelly