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Charles Willson Peale (1741 - 1827)

Moses Williams (American, 1777–c. 1825) Made at Peale's Museum, Philadelphia

This cut-paper profile by Moses Williams represents Charles Willson Peale, the Philadelphia artist, inventor, and creator of the Peale Museum, the nation’s first successful museum dedicated to educating and entertaining the public. In 1802 the museum introduced the physiognotrace, a machine that traced a sitter’s profile to create a small souvenir portrait. Inexpensive, accurate, and quickly produced and reproduced, these popular pictures were exchanged by friends and family as keepsakes and indicators of one’s character.

Scholars believe that in 1776, Peale accepted Lucy and Scarborough Williams, a mixed-race couple, as payment for commissioned portraits. Their son, Moses, born in 1775, also become Peale’s property by law. Despite his participation in slavery, Peale lobbied for Pennsylvania’s 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Six years after its passage, he freed Lucy and Scarborough. But he did not liberate their son for another sixteen years. Moses became skilled in the work required to maintain the Peale Museum and create its displays. On his emancipation, Moses was employed by the museum, and he was distinguished by his ability to cut fine profile portraits on its physiognotrace.

Object Details

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