Friday, March 22nd, 2013...9:30 am

What’s New: The Machine that Needed an Artist

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Williams, Moses. Hollow-cut silhouette of Arthur Maynard Walter, ca. 1805. Typ 870.05.8787 rectoThe Department of Printing and Graphic Arts recently acquired this hollow-cut silhouette in an oval shape of approximately 3½ x 5”. The inscription below the silhouette identifies the maker as “Williams,” referring to one of the few African-American silhouettists known of the nineteenth century, Moses Williams (1777-ca.1825). An inscription in the same hand on the verso identifies the sitter as Arthur Maynard Walter (1780-1807), a belletrist and one of the founders of the Boston Athenaeum.

Williams worked for the Philadelphian painter and museum owner, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Peale, who specialized in portraiture and was fascinated by machines, had acquired in the early 1800s a machine that aided in the making of silhouettes and was modeled on the physiognotrace. A tracing machine, it was supposed to make outlines of hollow-cut paper silhouettes more reliably than those drawn by the unaided human hand. The silhouette itself was then cut out by hand.

Peale set up a profile gallery in his museum and offered to have people’s silhouettes cut for eight cents a piece. This turned into a lucrative business as the machine became the main attraction of his museum. Williams was the first to operate the silhouette machine. One of Peale’s sons, Rembrandt, commented that, upon the arrival of the machine, Williams “took a fancy to amuse himself in cutting out the rejected profiles made by the machine, and soon acquired such dexterity and accuracy, that the machine was confided to his custody with the privilege of retaining the fee for drawing and cutting. This soon became so profitable, that my father insisted upon giving him his freedom [Peale had kept Williams in a state of slavery] one-year in advance.” Indeed, Williams produced 8,000 profiles the first year he operated the machine.

Hollow-cut paper silhouettes were especially common in the United States where the silhouette machine was used. The cut out profile was intended to be backed with paper or silk, usually black or another dark color to make the silhouette visible. The silhouettist could then draw some details in ink (curls, a scarf, a hat, jewelry) around the profile, such as in the present one. Yet, the silhouette machine was far from perfect. As Rembrandt Peale’s description suggests, many tracings had to be thrown away. Extant silhouettes made at the Peale museum and preserved at the Library Company of Philadelphia show the corrections Williams had to make to the mechanical tracings. In the end, the success of Peale’s silhouettes had more to do with the Williams’ cutting and correcting skills than with Peale’s machine.

Wishing to patent silhouettes cut at his museum, Peale had them labeled with a blind stamp saying “MUSEUM” or with his name. In general, silhouettists rarely signed their work. The present signed profile is, therefore, unusual (there is also another extant silhouette that bears Moses William’s name). It, and the tens of thousands of other silhouettes that he cut, are a tribute to the wide-spread appreciation of his skill.

Williams, Moses. Hollow-cut silhouette of Arthur Maynard Walter, ca. 1805. Typ 870.05.8787 verso

This post is part of a series called “What’s New.” Throughout the year, Houghton staff members will be blogging about new acquisitions and newly digitized materials. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the What’sNew tag.

[Thanks to Caroline Duroselle-Melish, Assistant Curator of Printing & Graphic Arts, for contributing this post.]

1 Comment

  • […] Another article from Harvard describes how successful was Moses’ work: “[T]he silhouette machine was far from perfect. As Rembrandt Peale’s description suggests, many tracings had to be thrown away. Extant silhouettes made at the Peale museum and preserved at the Library Company of Philadelphia show the corrections Williams had to make to the mechanical tracings. In the end, the success of Peale’s silhouettes had more to do with the Williams’ cutting and correcting skills than with Peale’s machine.” […]