James Bolivar Needham

February 7th, 2013by Olivia MahoneyFiled under: Collections, Stories

In honor of Black History Month, I’m featuring two paintings in the Museum’s collection by African American artist James Bolivar Needham (1850–1931). Born in Chatham, Ontario, Needham worked on Great Lakes schooners before coming to Chicago in 1867. Although most details of his life are lost, we do know that Needham supported himself by working as a house and decorative painter. He may have received some academic training but largely taught himself and apparently painted primarily for his own pleasure. Needham focused on the Chicago River, painting on location and capturing its gritty but beautiful essence in a vivid impressionistic style.

James Bolivar Needham
Tugboats, c. 1895–1915
Oil on canvas on board, 8 1/8″ x 12 1/8″
Gift of Mrs. Joseph N. Du Canto, ICHi-36127

The Museum owns nineteen works by Needham, all donated by Mrs. Joseph Du Canto in 1986. One of my favorites is Tugboats, which pays homage to the lowly but indispensable workhorse of the river. Another favorite is Chicago River: 1870 Northwestern Railroad Station. In this tableau, Needham captures the nexus of Chicago’s transportation network with people boarding a river tug that will transport them to another ship or perhaps the large railroad depot in the distance.

James Bolivar Needham
Chicago River, 1870 Northwestern Railroad Station, 1902
Oil on canvas on board, 8″ x 6 1/16″
Gift of Mrs. Joseph N. Du Canto, ICHi-36124

Needham passed away at age eighty-one in March 1931. He remained largely unknown until rediscovered in the late 1990s. Today, he is considered one of Chicago’s leading artists of the modern era.

The verso of S.S. Seneca, another of Needham’s small oils on canvas on board, reveals the artist’s diamond monograph and the date of the composition.

> Read more about African American history in Chicago

> Learn more about art in Chicago

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