Profile: David Bustill Bowser (1820-1900)

David Bustill Bowser was a 19th-century African-American ornamental artist and portraitist.

As the designer of battle flags for eleven African-American regiments during the American Civil War and painter of portraits of prominent Americans, including U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist John Brown, Bowser was an artist whose “works were the first widely viewed, positive images of African Americans painted by an African American,” according to historians at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Politically active throughout much of his adult life, he also helped to secure the post-war passage of key civil rights legislation in Pennsylvania.

Formative years

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 16, 1820, David Bustill Bowser was a grandson of Cyrus Bustill (1732–1806), a formerly enslaved man who purchased his freedom and went on to become a founding member of Philadelphia’s Free African Society, and a son of oyster house proprietor Jeremiah Bowser (1766–1856), whose freedom had been purchased by a group of Philadelphia Quakers after he had been arrested for being a fugitive slave.

A cousin and student of artist Robert Douglass Jr., who trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and was a pupil of Thomas Sully, David Bustill Bowser also attended the private school operated by Douglass’s sister, Sarah Mapps Douglass.

Married to seamstress Elizabeth Harriet Stevens Gray (June 13, 1831 – November 29, 1908), David Bustill Bowser and his wife were the parents of artist Raphael Bowser and Ida Elizabeth (Bowser) Asbury (1870–1955), a violinist and music teacher. Respected for their civic engagement and philanthropy, David B. and Elizabeth Bowser supported their family by designing and painting banners, signs, uniform hats and other regalia for fraternal associations, political groups, and volunteer fire companies in and beyond Philadelphia.

Death, interment and legacy

Bowser died in Philadelphia on June 30, 1900, and was buried at the Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.

During the 1940s, a major portion of his legacy was nearly obscured forever when the original Civil War battle flags he had designed were removed from the military museum at West Point, where they had been stored since the war. After the flags were thrown away, all that remained were the seven images described above (under “American Civil War”).

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