Moses Williams (1777-c. 1825)
Charles Wilson Peale, n.d.
Hollow-cut silhouette on paper, 12.2x10.2 cm
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the McNeil Americana Collection, 2009-18-42(167)
DescriptionCharles Willson Peale (1741-1827) was a painter, naturalist, and collector. He placed John Isaac Hawkins’ Physiognotrace in his Philadelphia museum and sold silhouettes to his visitors. Peale’s museum, open from 1786 to 1827, featured portraits of famous historical figures alongside a diverse collection of botanical, biological, and archaeological specimens, many collected and preserved by Peale and his children. In this silhouette, Moses Williams added pen and ink detail to the hair edges.
The silhouettes of Hannah Brown, Dr. James Foster Fayssoux, 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