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Charles Willson Peale (1741 - 1827)

After 1802
Moses Williams, American, 1777 - c. 1825. Made at Peale's Museum, Philadelphia

Charles Willson Peale, pictured here in a self-portrait, was a Philadelphia resident and an exceptional man of many talents—a painter, a scientist, an inventor, a fighter in the Revolutionary War, and the proprietor of the first successful public museum in the United States. He was also an enslaver.

Scholars believe that Peale accepted Lucy and Scarborough Williams, a mixed-race couple, as payment for a portrait commissioned from him by a Maryland plantation owner. The Williamses’ son Moses was born in 1775, and Peale also claimed him as property.

Despite his participation in slavery, Peale lobbied for Pennsylvania’s 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Six years after the law’s passage he freed Lucy and Scarborough Williams. But he did not liberate their son for another sixteen years.

When Peale eventually emancipated Moses Williams, he retained him as an employee. Williams was a skilled artist in his own right: he cut portrait silhouettes, like those pictured here, as souvenirs for visitors to Peale’s museum.


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