Black on White: Silhouettes of Hartford’s Morgan Family

Feb 7, 2014

Made of cut paper, silhouettes present a black image on a white background. The technique was widely used for small profile portraits, which enjoyed great popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In an age before photography, a silhouette was an inexpensive way to record the features of a loved one. Many were the work of itinerant artists who traveled from town to town cutting portraits.

All silhouettes are black and white, but a series of four silhouettes at the Connecticut Historical Society, represents a veritable play on words. These portraits of the prominent—and white—Morgan family of Hartford were cut by a talented—and black—silhouette artist. The members of the Morgan family appear as black shadow figures. Peter Choice, the artist who wielded the scissors and skillfully cut their portraits, does not appear at all.

Joseph Morgan was the proprietor of the City Hotel and Morgan's Coffee House, an important gathering place for Hartford businessmen. He later went on to become one of the founders of the Aetna Insurance Company. Joseph and his wife Sarah Spencer Morgan had three children: Lucy Morgan Goodwin; Mary Morgan Smith, and Junius Spencer Morgan.  Junius was the father of the New York financier J.P. Morgan. The silhouettes at the Connecticut Historical Society represent Joseph, Sarah, and their two little girls.  They were probably cut in the late 1810s.

Peter Choice was a shadowy figure, like many itinerant artists of his day, black or white. His life is not well-documented. He advertised in The Hartford Courant between 1809 and 1811, offering his services not only as a “profile artist,” but also as a hair dresser. He claimed to have cut the portraits of the crowned heads of Europe, but this was likely only advertising hype, as prevalent in that day as in this. He is probably the same Peter Choice who shows up in Boston with his wife Hannah, whom he married in 1802. 

Evidence for Peter Choice’s race is scant and inconclusive, but it seems probable that he was of African descent. Did Choice ever speculate on the ironic nature of his business, cutting black portraits of white Americans? Did his customers ever think about the fact that the artist who created these striking black images of them was himself black? In the 1840s, photography would put many silhouette artists out of business, almost overnight. One of the earliest successful Hartford photographers was an African-American, Augustus Washington.