Peale’s Museum Silhouettes, the Original Souvenir Selfie

Alisa Kraut, Registrar


Sitting in my living room, on prominent display, is a hollow-cut silhouette that was made for me as a child. My parents had it framed, where it sat in storage for decades. At some point during the last 10 years, I was regifted this work during one of my mother’s frequent decluttering efforts. Immediately entranced, I was reminded of Peter Pan’s relationship with his shadow, lost-and-found; as an intrinsic part of a whole and completely separate. While I’ve seen countless photographs from my childhood, something about this cut-paper silhouette felt less exact yet more truthful than a photograph. It was as if that child-self had been captured in amber in a physical way quite different from the perfect reproduction of a photograph. Why do silhouettes continue to fascinate us? The art of the silhouette—originally called a “shade” or “profile”—is no longer the main democratizing portrait medium that it was during the height of its popularity over the 50 years prior to the advent of photography. Now selfies predominate and hollow-cut silhouettes are the venue of contemporary artists like Kara Walker or that of hobbyists and educators. 

The typical silhouette shows a traced shadow of the sitter’s profile. The tracing is then cut out to reveal the silhouette as a hollow on a page. These hollow-cut silhouettes were typically backed with dark paper or fabric to create the image we’re familiar with today as a silhouette portrait. 


The Atwater Kent Collection holds more than forty 19th century hollow-cut silhouettes, many of the subjects are unidentified and the works unsigned. Three such silhouettes (above) are a part of the Atwater Kent’s Friends Historical Association collection while several others have been identified as Quaker subjects. Anne Verplanck, a professor emerita at Penn State and former curator at the Winterthur Museum, has written about the prevalence of silhouettes as the primary form of portraiture among the affluent Quaker community in the early 1800s prior to the popularization of daguerreotypes, whereas non-Quakers of similar status opted for oil portraiture. This preference stems from the Quaker community’s unwritten mores around “plainness” and the belief that the image captured by profile tracing, and later by daguerreotypes, were “more direct… than oil paintings or miniatures” (Verplanck, 2009, p. 42). More than just a record of an individual, Quakers shared and copied silhouettes, and even organized them into albums collecting the profiles of family members along with important figures from the history of Quakerism and the United States. In this way, silhouettes acted as a community-building exercise, mostly executed by women, to build narratives that solidified family ties, inter-community relationships, and memory (Verplanck, 2009, p. 44). 

History of the Silhouette 

Tracing a person’s shadow was a popular, cheap, and scientific portrait medium in the decades before Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) and William Henry Fox Talbot’s (1800-1877) innovations into chemically fixed photographic images. Silhouette portraits typically lacked any internal details but provided an exact reproduction of the sitter’s profile during a moment in time, without interference from the artist’s subjective hand. This was the silhouette’s ideal. In reality, exactness varied depending upon the skill of the artist and care with cutting, however, the promise of capturing a true rendering was an enticing one. 

Prior to the spread of the silhouette, only the very wealthy could enjoy the luxury of portraiture. That changed in 1802, when John Isaac Hawkins patented a version of a physionotrace that reproduced silhouette tracings in miniature on small pieces of paper. Artist and polymath Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) installed a Hawkins physionotrace in his Philadelphia Museum (and later in his other museums in Baltimore and New York) as an early kind of visitor interactive where the machine-aided, hand-finished souvenir silhouettes became a public sensation. While the visitors had their silhouette traced, they could opt to cut the tracing themselves or pay a small fee to have the artist on site cut it for them. Many, but not all, Peale Museum silhouettes were impressed with one of three stamps: “Museum,” “Peale Museum” with an image of an eagle, and “Peale.” The silhouettes were cut from folded, thin, rectangular paper, approximately 4″ x 5″, due to the paper size accommodated by the physionotrace. The three silhouettes below show marks from the Peale Museum that indicate authenticity, though easy-to-spot forgeries are rampant.  

“Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles” 

 Moses Williams (1776-circa 1825), a biracial man formerly enslaved by Charles Wilson Peale, was a sought-after silhouette artist at Peale’s Philadelphia Museum (see a silhouette of Williams on the Library Company of Philadelphia’s website). Though the silhouettes are unsigned and have frequently been attributed to Peale or his sons Raphael and Rembrandt Peale, many Peale Museum profiles from the first decades of the 1800s were likely to have been cut by Williams, who produced more than 8,500 hollow-cut silhouettes during his first year working the physionotrace. Williams charged around 8 cents per hollow-cut and his skill was so admired that during his first years as a “cutter of profiles” Williams was able to buy a two-story home and marry the Peale family’s white cook (Shaw, 2005, p. 26). We cannot say with certainty if any of the three silhouettes above or the additional similarly executed profiles in our collection were created by Moses Williams, but due to the prolific nature of his work and the popularity of the medium, there is good reason to assume that at least some of them were. 

While there were itinerant and locally established silhouette artists in many cities, profiles were also crafted by amateurs, friends, and family members as an easily reproducible, shareable, and pocket-sized image. The original democratized portrait format, once the public could create and share images of themselves, there was no turning back.  


​​Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2023, September 19). silhouette. Encyclopedia Britannica. 

​British Museum. (n.d.). Gilles Louis Chrétien. Retrieved from The British Museum: 

​Knipe, Penley. (2002). Paper Profiles: American Portrait Silhouettes. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 41(3), 203-223. 

​Library Company of Philadelphia. (2021). Moses Williams, cutter of profiles [graphic]. Retrieved from The Library Company of Philadelphia: 

​Shaw, G. D. (2005, March). “Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles”: Silhouettes and African American Identity in the Early Republic. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 149(1), 22-39. 

​Verplanck, A. (2012). Peales Museum Silhouettes. Retrieved from Incollect: 

​ (2009, Spring). The Silhouette and Quaker Identity in Early National Philadelphia. Winterthur Portfolio, 43(1), 41-78.