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Arts of North America

Art created in North America includes objects made by native cultures of the present-day United States and Canada; paintings and decorative arts produced during colonial times; 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces; and the work of contemporary artists and photographers.

Moses Williams
American, c. 1802 - 1820
Revealed Silhouette of a Young Woman
c. 1813–20, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania
Wove paper with black ink

Image: 2 7/8 x 1 1/2 inches; Sheet: 4 1/4 x 3 1/8 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Bayou Bend Collection, gift of Miss Ima Hogg

Arts of North America

Born a slave to American artist Charles Willson Peale, Moses Williams became a free man at the age of 27. Training in Peale’s museum gave Williams many skills—particularly in creating profile portraits using a machine known as the physiognotrace, which traced the outline of the sitter’s head directly onto a sheet of white paper.

This silhouette shows a refined young lady, yet little else can be seen—her race in particular is not clear from the outlines of her profile.

Although the physiognotrace accurately represented a sitter’s features, a silhouette can conceal as much as it can reveal. Williams would have known this as a portrait sitter himself. In 1803, Williams had his profile, now called Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles (Library Company of Philadelphia), drawn by Raphaelle Peale. Williams likely wanted the more Anglicized or white aspects of his profile—like his straight hair—to be emphasized over his African features.

As a mixed-race individual who built a prosperous life in pre-Civil War Philadelphia, Williams took advantage of the ways a silhouette could obscure a sitter’s profile. This form of portraiture does not fit neatly into either accommodation or resistance, showing instead the complex ways that African Americans responded to oppression.

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