Great Britain, pitcher dedicated to Absalom Jones, circa 1802-07. Creamware, 9 1/8 inches.
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Among the multitude of tributes made to the renowned African-American clergyman Absalom Jones, few capture his life and times in quite the same way as this elegant ceramic pitcher.

Beneath the vessel’s spout appears the bewigged clergyman rendered in strict profile and dressed in clerical robe and collar. The precise, hand-lettered inscription below the portrait identifies him as “Absalom Jones of the Affrican [sic] Church, Philad.”

Besides the obvious references to Jones’ illustrious career as a clergyman and Freemason, the pitcher bears more nuanced connections to the multifaceted life of African Americans in the city of Philadelphia. In particular, the migration of his silhouetted portrait from the hands of another black Philadelphian to a pottery factory in England reveals the interaction of art and science during the transition from slavery to enfranchisement in the city.

In 1787 Jones and fellow pastor Richard Allen founded the Free African Society, a mutual-aid organization for blacks both slave and free. After having been refused full membership status in the predominantly white St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, Jones then established the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, followed shortly by Allen’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

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A similar path was taken by both men regarding Freemasonry, a fraternal body devoted to the moral principles of brotherly love, charity and truth. Prince Hall and others obtained full privileges for their African Lodge in Boston in 1784. Jones petitioned Hall to charter a local lodge in Philadelphia. In 1797 the request was formally granted, with Jones serving as master and Allen as treasurer.

Membership in the Philadelphia lodge played a large part in Jones’ life, as is clearly shown in the graphic on the pitcher. Flanking his image are two large assemblages of Masonic emblems, each with its own mystical significance. The vessel was clearly commissioned to celebrate his importance within the lodge, though the specific reason remains unknown.

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For all the profound gaps that existed between the white and black citizens of Philadelphia, members of the two groups constantly interacted, often in novel ways. A good case in point is the nexus of interests promoted by the artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale. Like Benjamin Franklin, another famous resident of the city, Peale had an insatiable interest in all fields of knowledge, some of which he virtually created. His career soon became a family business, since virtually all of his many children, including his daughters, became proficient in the arts. One of his sons, Raphaelle, painted the best-known formal portrait of Jones.

Among this vast progeny lived Moses Williams, a black man who grew up in the Peale household. His situation there was certainly not unusual and demonstrates the conflicted situation of race and servitude in the North during the first days of the republic. Like Jones, Williams was born a slave but was destined for freedom under the terms of gradual emancipation established in Pennsylvania in 1780.

For Moses this came in 1802. He had already worked for some time in Peale’s famous museum, an institution dedicated to the study of the natural world. The ostensibly scientific evaluation of race inevitably found its place among the mastodon bones and stuffed specimens of the animal kingdom.

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Soon after his manumission, Williams was assigned the task of operating what today would be considered an interactive part of the museum’s attractions. Ever fascinated by the merger of technology and art, Peale invested in a mechanical method for the production of hollow-cut portrait silhouettes.

Known as a physiognotrace, the device was operated with a rod that was moved along the contours of the face and head. The likeness was simultaneously traced in reduced scale by a steel point onto a folded sheet of paper. Once completed, the outline was carefully cut out by hand, often with judicious aesthetic changes made by the cutter. When backed by dark paper, the opening was transformed into an enduring record of an individual.

An early subject was Thomas Jefferson, who sat for Raphaelle Peale at Monticello. Another was Williams himself, his identity verified by an inscription thath appeared below his image: “Moses Williams, cutter of profiles.”

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Generally the silhouette has been attributed to Raphaelle Peale, but as art-history professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw has pointed out, it may well be a self-portrait, since the machine could easily be operated by the sitter. Over a period of 20 years, Williams made thousands of these inexpensive miniatures, thereby creating a virtual portrait gallery of a large part of the population of Philadelphia. Among the many surviving cutouts, one depicts an unidentified slave described only as “Mr. Shaw’s blackman.”

It is here suggested that at least one more black person sat for Williams, none other than the celebrated Freemason Jones. Evidence for the occasion comes not from a surviving paper silhouette but from the pitcher itself. While the complex Masonic images flanking his image were merely selected from the store of standard patterns available to English potters, the source for his likeness came directly from America.

When the order for the pitcher was placed, a cut-paper profile image of the honoree would have accompanied the correspondence. Its connection with Peale’s portrait-cutting enterprise is confirmed by its format and size and the crisp contours of the face. Once received by the pottery, it could easily be adapted for use on the vessel in painted form. The most likely date for the commission would fall between 1802, when Williams began making silhouette cuttings, and the onset in 1807 of a series of trade embargoes that curtailed commerce between the U.S. and Great Britain.

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The transfer of the cutout silhouette of a great African-American leader to a more complex medium and context illustrates in its own modest way the potential of this distinctive type of imagery to grow beyond the bounds of its original purpose. Almost two centuries later, the African-American artist Kara Walker carried the interpretive potential of the silhouette into a far different dimension, this time transforming the diminutive expression of gravitas in Moses’ portrait of Jones to produce an overpoweringly satirical indictment of Southern-plantation slavery. Her monumental cutout tableaux explicitly comment on a state of captivity actually experienced by Moses and his generation of African Americans.

The difference between the two treatments of the human form lies in the lionizing of a survivor of slavery within a socially acceptable format on the one hand and, on the other, the trenchant confrontation of the evil that touched the life of Jones—a veritable “slipping of the yoke” of a painful national legacy.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.