Profile: Moses Williams (1777–c.1825)

Moses Williams was an African-American visual artist who was particularly well known as a maker of silhouettes. He was a former slave of the artist Charles Willson Peale.

Early life, slavery, and education

Moses Williams was born in 1777 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Scarborough and Lucy Peale, who were slaves in the home of renowned artist and museum-owner Charles Willson Peale. It is believed that Williams’ parents began to work for Peale sometime between 1769 and 1775. In 1786, Peale emancipated Williams’ parents, and Williams’ father Scarborough changed his name to John Williams, passing along his new last name to his son.

Silhouette maker

Growing up in the Peale household, Williams was instructed in skills that would help him to work at Peale’s Museum, including taxidermy, object display, and silhouette-making. As a slave, he was not taught the “higher art” of painting. After showing skill at silhouette-making, Williams was given a physionotrace machine to make silhouettes and he continued to work at Peale’s Museum as a freed man and a professional silhouettist, making black-and-white paper silhouettes for visitors of the museum. Williams also created silhouettes of the Peale family, including Charles Willson Peale and his wife Elizabeth. Williams made over 8,000 silhouettes during his first year working at Peale’s Museum.  He earned between 6 and 8 cents for every silhouette that he cut. With the money that Williams earned making silhouettes, Williams was able to buy his own home and to marry.

By 1823, silhouette-cutting as a profession was in decline, and Williams had to sell his home. According to the Author’s Note in “The Poison Place”, a novel about Moses Williams, he was listed in city directories as a profile cutter until 1833.

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