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 James Bolivar Needham  (1850 - 1931)

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Lived/Active: Illinois/Ontario / Canada      Known for: waterfront scenes, marine, sculpture

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Ad Code: 3
James Bolivar Needham
from Auction House Records.
A Morning with the Yachts & Houseboats
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Chatham, Ontario, James Needham was an African-American painter who spent over sixty years recording the city of Chicago where he settled in 1867. Of special interest to him were marine and waterfront scenes, many of them of the Chicago River, which was one of the busiest waterways in the world when he arrived in Chicago. The river" had more traffic than the ports of San Francisco, New Orleans and New York combined". (Kennedy 166)

However, Needham received little attention until the "Chicago Daily News" carried a feature article on him shortly after his death in 1931 when he was eighty-one years old. In this article, he was depicted as a shy, humble artist whose avocation was painting for his own pleasure. This description likely held truth because Needham is not mentioned in any records of early black-American artists in Chicago.

He was born in Chatham, Ontario, which was a terminus of the Underground Railroad. He worked his way around the Great Lakes as a hand on lumber schooners. In Chicago, he made a living as a janitor, house and decorative painter. At his death, according to his death certificate, he was working as a caretaker of the Lambert Tree estate on Chicago's north side.

Apparently he had little formal training, although it has been written he worked early in sculpture with Lorado Taft. (Falk)

Needham rarely signed his paintings because he did not intend to sell them. But he left his mark on each work with a system of symbols on the back of the canvases and meticulously recorded the location and names of specific boats on the paintings. Many of his paintings have been lost or destroyed, but the remaining works are primarily small in size, painted on finely woven linen and mounted on panel. Of the quality of his work, it was written: "Only someone who felt completely at home on the river could have painted it with such tendernessl . . . Needham's pictures are almost all unconventionally and unselfconsciously composed. While many are 'portraits' of ships, others make the viewer who is unfamiliar with activity on the river wonder exactly what the paintings depict." (Kennedy 134)

In spring, 1998, Adams Fine Art Gallery in Chicago held the first exhibition ever dedicated to his work.

Sources include:
Adam Fine Art Gallery, Chicago
Elizabeth Kennedy, "Chicago Modern"
Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"

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