Black History Month: The Art of David Bustill Bowser

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA-- Part of the philosophy of sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois was that African Americans needed to be well versed in a variety of professions so that they could uplift others.  This is part of his well-known "talented tenth" point of view.   Under this mantra of using one's talent and position to help others was artist David Bustill Bowser.

M.S. Rau Antiques exhibits one of his paintings in New Orleans.  It's a painting of United States President, Abraham Lincoln.  What makes it special is that it is a painting done by an African American Artist during slavery.

"David Bowser was a prominent artist in Philadelphia in the 19th century," says Rebecca Rau, the fourth-generation owner of M.S. Rau Antiques.

Rebecca knew plenty of history, explaining that Bowser was a prominent African American artist from a family known for both their philanthropic involvement, civil rights advocation and prevalence the artistic community.

"It's exciting because this Lincoln portrait is one of the few versions that the Bowser did.  One is at the Lincoln museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The other is at the Sankofa Collection in Washington D.C.   A third picture sold privately in the 1990s," says Rebecca.  David Bowser only did four of these paintings of President Lincoln.

In addition to his artwork, Bowser was the son of a freed slave and he and his wife Lizzy's house was a stop on the underground railroad.  They used their position to help others.

"The artist and his family strived to support the black community around the country. There was an outbreak of yellow fever in New Orleans during this lifetime and he and his wife were involved in supporting victims of yellow fever when resources and the government wouldn't," says Rebecca.

David Bowser was born in 1820 and passed away in 1900.  His Lincoln portrait was done in 1865.  1865 was a monumental year that coincided with the emancipation proclamation.

Rebecca, says Lincoln did not sit down in front of David Bowser, instead the painting is based on a photograph; "it's done based on the photograph that is on the five dollar bill.  That is why it is so recognizable and iconic because it is the image that we as a society most familiar as a president."

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