ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
John Warner Norton (1876 - 1934)
By James L. Zimmer M.A. © Illinois Historical Art Project
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, when a burgeoning Chicago art scene veered between the old establishment and more progressive thinking, John Warner Norton emerged as an individualist following his own convictions. As a modernist, he believed the artist should embrace the quickly evolving world and capture those changes in his work, yet not deny his role as an impersonal interpreter of nature. As an educator he encouraged students to think creatively for themselves, discover their own voices. He instilled in pupils a reverence for sound craftsmanship and, careful not to impose any rigid formula, guided them to extrapolate from his teaching only what was useful to develop their own ideas. And, as a muralist, he made his most lasting contribution by inventing new forms of visual expression, many in the Chicago vicinity, which complimented their architectural environs. Shortly after his death a memorial exhibition was held at the Art Institute of Chicago and in the press appeared the most descriptive of comments on the career of Norton:
“John Norton’s relation to the new era and ‘modern art’ is of vital importance in an estimate of his position as a painter. It is here that I believe he exercised his greatest influence. It is this that prompted Robert Harshe [director of the Art Institute] to say, ‘John was the preeminent personality in the art of the Midwest and his death is the greatest blow that it could suffer’.”
Norton was born on March 7, 1876, in Lockport, Illinois, just thirty-five miles southwest of Chicago. His paternal grandparents, Hiram N. Norton and Rhoda Kingsley Norton, arrived in Lockport in 1838 from Canada. Hiram Norton owned the Canada Stage Company in Preston, Ontario, and served in Upper Canada’s Parliament for fourteen years. Norton’s maternal grandparents, William Gooding and Ann Cutting Gooding, were originally from New York and had settled in Lockport by at least 1836. William Gooding was appointed Canal Engineer for the Illinois and Michigan Canal, built between 1836 and 1848. The Canal—a vital transportation waterway that linked the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River—was important not only to Gooding but also the Norton family in Lockport. Hiram Norton and his son John Lyman Norton made use of the canal to build in Lockport a financially successful business empire of grain and paper milling, grain exchange, lumber, a general store, and other affiliated concerns. These ventures afforded the Nortons wealth, substantial land holdings along the canal, and social standing.
Norton was the fourth of five children born to John Lyman Norton and Ada Clara Gooding Norton. John’s youth was spent primarily in Lockport during the prosperous years of Norton & Co. When he reached his early teens, he was sent to Dr. Holbrook’s military school in Ossining, New York, and then he attended the Harvard School for Boys in Chicago. His family sent him to study law at Harvard University presumably to aid the family business. At Harvard, John demonstrated an early proclivity for drawing by creating illustrations for the Lampoon. By 1896, however, Norton & Co. became insolvent, and shortly thereafter Norton was forced to leave Harvard and return to Lockport.
In 1897 Norton was hired to tutor the son of Norman Ream, a Chicago capitalist. As part of the educational experience, Norton took the young man westward, and they eventually stopped in California. When Ream returned home, Norton rode east to Arizona Territory and stopped at a ranch near Tucson where he donned spurs and a cowboy hat. At this time he also met John Lorenzo Hubbell, Sr., who established an important trading post at Ganado, promoted Navajo arts and crafts to the Anglo culture and befriended many artists. Norton would return to visit Hubbell at Ganado several times during future visits to the Southwest. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Norton left Arizona and joined Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, Troop C, First Regiment, U.S. Cavalry Volunteers. Norton never reached Cuba however. Instead, he served his brief commission chiefly in Florida until his discharge at Montauk Point, New York.
Norton returned to Lockport and worked briefly in his father’s struggling business—then in receivership—before returning to school, this time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Here he studied life drawing under John Henry Vanderpoel (1857-1911) and composition with Frederick H. Richardson (1862-1937). He proved himself a talented pupil, winning honorable mentions for his drawings exhibited in the school’s student exhibitions. During the 1901-1902 school year he taught a juvenile class, which was a teaching assistantship awarded to the best students. Norton was also permitted to study under Julius Gari Melchers (1860-1932) at the Art Institute in 1902, a class reserved for students in high standing. Another influence from this period came from outside the school. Norton’s older sister, Louise Norton Brown, introduced him to Japanese composition and style through the prints and books she brought back from her travels. Of particular interest to him was the work of Katsushika Hokusai. Norton studied these examples religiously, attracted to the simple lines, flat shapes, and the decorative qualities of the work. From these works he gleaned a fresh, new way of how artists could interpret the world around them. He repeatedly used the principles learned from these works in his own early paintings, drawings, and illustrations.
While in school Norton’s ambition was to become an illustrator. In 1900, motivated by what would become his signature determination, he was employed by the Chicago Inter-Ocean as a quick-sketch artist. Over the next two years, he created illustrations for Blue Sky magazine and The Inland Printer. In these early illustrations, he uses a scarab- shaped signatory indicia which most likely resulted from experiences at the School of the Art Institute. During his classes, the conservative John Henry Vanderpoel was known to lambaste the pointillism of French artist Georges Seurat. Norton and fellow classmates Albert Henry Krehbiel (1875-1945), Harry Everett Townsend (1879-1941), Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt (1878-1955), and Harry Haviland Osgood (1875-1960), a group who identified themselves as “The Beetles,” joined their teacher Frederick Richardson (1862-1937) to defend Seurat’s work. Norton’s objection was probably to Vanderpoel’s repudiation of new, independent thinking rather than from any specific devotion to Seurat’s style of painting. This reaction would have been consistent with Norton’s respect for intellectual pursuits and his need to think independently, characteristics that friends and family observed throughout his life.
Once out of school, Norton was faced with making a living. To supplement his income from infrequent illustration work, he began what would become a long committed career in teaching. After Carl Newland Werntz (1874-1944) opened the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1902, Norton started teaching there. This was an appropriate move, given the school’s inclination for commercial art and Norton’s interest in illustration. He continued to teach at the Academy until 1910, and during this period he found in fellow instructor William Penhallow Henderson (1877-1943) a close friend and kindred spirit. Another illustrator, Walter J. Enright (1879-1969), was also a good friend of Norton’s during this period of his early career. Enright had been a fellow student at the Art Institute and the two shared a studio in the Fine Arts Building. They also traveled together to Saugatuck, Michigan, and to the Southwest.
Norton formed an even closer bond with yet another student from the Art Institute. On September 2, 1903, he married Margaret (Madge) Washburn Francis (1879-1963), whom he had first met in 1900 as a classmate. The couple was married in the bride’s home in Rock Island, Illinois. The Nortons embarked on a 400-mile trip to the Southwest the following March, traveling by train, wagon, and burrow through the Arizona Territory. Poet William Vaughn Moody—who later wrote The Great Divide—and Professor Ferdinand Schevill of the University of Chicago accompanied them through Hopi Indian territory, with stops in the villages of Orabi, Sichomovi, and Walpi. The Nortons parted company with their traveling companions and journeyed alone to visit John Lorenzo Hubbell, Sr., at Ganado, and then went on to Cañon del Muerto and Cañon de Chelley. Illustrations and paintings Norton did for the Santa Fe Railroad financed the trip. The artist harbored a deep respect for this part of the country ever since he was a young man riding the range, and now its people and natural wonders inspired his canvases and the pages of his sketchbook. In two of his oil paintings from this period, In Mokiland and Hopi Indian Dance, Norton demonstrated his keen observation of nature by capturing the glowing colors produced by the intense Southwestern sun and faithfully interpreting the local customs and the living environment of the Native Americans. His illustrations for the Santa Fe Railroad and the Arizona paintings which he began to exhibit back home strengthened Norton’s reputation as a Southwestern artist.
Norton had already begun to exhibit his work in 1902 at the annual shows of the Art Students’ League of Chicago, and he also provided the cover illustration of the exhibition catalogue. Then in 1904, after his Southwest trip with Madge, he exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, as a non-student. Four paintings, of them at least three Southwest scenes, were selected for the Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture. The following year his work was first included in the Annual Exhibition of Works by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity and the Annual Exhibition of Watercolors by American Artists. Norton continued to exhibit in these three important Chicago shows on a fairly regular basis through 1927.
Despite the exhibitions, illustration work and his professional reputation, these were lean years for the Nortons. After their marriage, they moved in with Norton’s parents at the old family mansion in Lockport, thinking it would be only temporary until they could head for New York City where so many of the Chicago artists were relocating. But with the family business already bankrupt, Norton’s meager salary as a teacher plus the mounting responsibility of a family, they were unable to afford a move east. The Norton’s first child, Margaret Francis, arrived in 1905, followed by John Francis in 1907, and Nancy in 1912. To compensate for increased expenses, Norton expanded his teaching activities beyond the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In 1906 he advertised a month-long sketching class at Saugatuck, where in later years he periodically taught or lectured during summers. He also opened his home in Lockport for summer classes in about 1908, but the venture was not financially successful.
Although Norton was not able to make a living solely from commercial work, other opportunities did present themselves. In 1907 Norton established a relationship with the A.C. McClurg and Company in Chicago. He also executed his first illustrations for a Western novel, The Iron Way by Sara Pratt Carr. The only known extant original painting for one of these illustrations offers insight to Norton’s work method and his maturing illustration style. The canvas size approximates those of later easel paintings, suggesting a format that was comfortable for Norton. The image was rendered in cool and warm grays without surface color that indicates Norton’s fairly sophisticated understanding of black-and-white reproduction. Norton’s palette shows a shift toward middle tones and away from the boldly contrasted ink drawings of his earlier illustrations. Representational figures dominate the composition, clearly a witness to Vanderpoel’s influence. Yet the forms are simplified, devoid of any unnecessary detail, foreshadowing Norton’s later work. He similarly illustrated three more McClurg westerns: Joseph Mills Hanson’s With Sully Into the Sioux Land and With Carrington on the Bozeman Road as well as Don MacGrath: A Tale of the River by Randall Parrish.
Teaching and illustration were not the only pursuits that occupied Norton during these years. He also took the first tentative steps toward his later career as a muralist. As early as 1904, Norton completed two murals, one for the South Division High School in Chicago with William Penhallow Henderson, Harry Townsend and Hope Dunlap (?-after 1913) and another for the Grand Cañon Hotel in Arizona, although the size and scope of these works has not been determined. He also exhibited a decorative composition and a decorative panel in the Annual Exhibition of Works by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity of 1905 and 1906. Somewhere during this period he also created an overmantel for William Haseltine in Ripon, Wisconsin. But in light of his later work, these pieces were clearly experimental and did not offer Norton the challenge of future commissions. His intrigue for mural decoration, however, was timely as it coincided with a burgeoning interest in murals as a viable focus for artists of the period.
In Chicago this new enthusiasm for murals was first stimulated by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, for which no less than twenty artists embellished the great domes, tympanums, panels, friezes and porticos of “The White City.” The interior and exterior decorations for the Agricultural Building, New York State Building, Administration Building, Woman’s Building and particularly the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building engendered public acclaim, “no words too enthusiastic to express what was felt to be due the artists.” For the majority of Exposition artists, this was their initial foray into mural decoration; and their work, in this sense, was experimental. The impact, however, carried forward to the next century.
By the time Norton completed his first decorative experiments, interest in mural painting was building in Chicago. In 1906 Anna Caulfield responded by delivering to a series of lectures on mural art to the members of the Arché, aided by colored lantern slides of examples from around the world. The very next year Thomas Wood Stevens (1880-1942) inaugurated mural classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Norton’s budding interest was planted in fertile soil. The second decade of the century marked an important turning point for Norton. Around 1910 when the recently formed Cliff Dwellers club took residence above Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, Norton furnished the space with his first important mural decoration. Originally situated at the top of the stairs, the painted canvas panel reflected both Norton’s and fellow club members’ interest in the Southwest and its culture. Beyond that, the painted grouping of multi-generational Native Americans intimates the pageantry associated with the club’s beginning also found in other mural painting of the era. Although the subject yields to southwestern inspiration, the image is reminiscent of the stacked, overlapping shapes found in Japanese composition. This mural and those that closely followed, attest to the lasting impact of Norton’s introduction to the graphic arts of the Far East.
Norton’s association with the Cliff Dwellers also ended a period of relative social isolation from the Chicago scene. Before this time, Norton and his wife fraternized with professional colleagues and friends from the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Institute. As a member of the Cliff Dwellers, Norton was in the midst of some of the most consequential artists, architects, writers, and others interested in the city’s cultural development. It was a ripe environment for an up-and-coming artist and it was a place where Norton wanted to be. At this point there was a major shift in Norton’s teaching career. First, and most important, he started teaching at the School of the Art Institute. He began in the fall of 1910 by teaching life drawing, illustration, and summer classes. Three years later he was teaching his first classes in mural decoration. In 1914 Norton, Frederick Frary Fursman (1874-1943), and Thomas Eddy Tallmadge (1876-1940) co-founded The New School of Art, located in the Tower Building. The venture, however, proved unsuccessful, and by the fall of 1915 Norton was teaching life and mural classes full-time at the Institute.
What methods he used in his teaching at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts or what his philosophy was at The New School is open to speculation. Far more, however, can be pieced together from student testimonies during Norton’s tenure at the School of the Art Institute. The war raging between conservative and radical approaches was a carryover from Norton’s school days. Norton did not subscribe to the conventional, academic training of students, which he felt taught skill but fettered creative thinking and artistic development. He eschewed “methods” and was disinterested in turning out students who copied his own style. Margrette Oatway Dornbusch—first Norton’s student and then his assistant until his death—credited him with the ability to perceive, reveal, and nurture each student’s unique talents, encouraging the development of individual styles and interests. He was resolute that students develop ownership in their work and abilities, and believe in their own convictions, rather than be slaves to any rigid system. To this end he never permitted himself to make changes in a student’s work-in-progress. If unable to verbally communicate with students about their intentions and assist them in reaching their goals, he illustrated his concept on a separate paper, never on the students’ work. He wanted students to think for themselves and summon their own creativity to reach conclusions.
If Norton had any absolute philosophy, it was that “a picture was not an idea about art, but an idea about the world, recorded in terms of art.” He taught his students to arrive at their interpretations of nature by using a hierarchical approach for selection, organization, and technique. Selection involved carefully choosing a point of view for developing forms, organization guided how the forms could best be built to create a design, and technique could only be articulated after the first two steps were taken. With these principles, Norton conveyed the process of shaping form out of space by disregarding surface embellishment and concentrating on the underlying structure of objects. His emphasis was on providing only what was necessary for an interpretation rather than strict reproduction of nature. Art could only suggest more than nature, Norton believed, if the image created was “so selected and so organized that it should present to the mind of man a more unified, hence more forceful and complete vision of that specimen than nature itself could give.” Although it may seem Norton was advocating a “method,” his point of view simply suggested guiding principles students could interpret to their advantage in any of various ways. Some of Norton’s students who benefited from his classes and later became accomplished in their fields include Macena Barton (1901-1986), Archibald Motley Jr. (1891-1981), Increase Robinson (1890-1981), Kathleen Blackshear (1897-1988), the muralists Dean Cornwall (1892-1960), Davenport Griffen (1894-1986), Tom Lea (1907-?), Eric Mose (1905-?), and Theodore Roszak (1907-2001).
The advice Norton gave students represented more than his approach to teaching. It grew from the constantly evolving ideas he developed and made manifest in his work, whether illustrations, easel paintings, or murals. Norton craved the intellectual challenge of new ideas, and several events of the early to mid 1910s must have given him ample stimulus. In 1912 the Art Institute of Chicago’s Scammon Lectures focused on mural painting in America, highlighting the history, significance, technique, and inherent challenges. These timely lectures paralleled a growing interest in murals for public and commercial buildings not only in Chicago, but throughout America. Mural decorations of the late nineteenth century were characterized by the tastes of European-trained artists who favored allegorical figures with Rennaissance overtones, an approach embraced by many of the artists who provided decorations for the World’s Columbian Exposition. But this was the dawn of a new school of architecture, especially in Chicago, and these mural antecedents were inappropriate for modern buildings of a new century. Norton must have quickly grasped the implications for his own work. In 1913 he traveled to New York and attended the controversial Armory Show. His response was predictably favorable, despite popular skepticism of the exhibition. He saw in many of the artists’ works an intellectual challenge, a propinquity to some of his own geometrical explorations, and, as he had seen earlier in Japanese prints, a fresh approach. Armed with these experiences, Norton began work on his next series of murals.
In 1913, the year he started teaching mural decoration at the School of the Art Institute, Norton began work on what would be his largest and most sophisticated mural decorations to date. The nine panels for the Fuller Park Assembly Hall, distinguished by its Prairie Style architecture, were completed in 1914 and fortunately survive today as a record of Norton’s earliest mural work for a modern, public structure in Chicago. The non-contiguous decorations, stylistically reflecting the pageantry-inspired Cliff Dwellers work, depicted the exploration and settling of this area of the country. With this commission Norton broadened his sensitivity to the architectural environment and its dictates and expressed a responsibility to the viewer. Studying the uneven light of the space, Norton adjusted his palette and size of the forms accordingly to compensate for panels cast in shadow.
Also in 1914, Norton had his second opportunity to execute work for a truly modern building when Frank Lloyd Wright asked him, along with William Penhallow Henderson, to furnish decorations for Midway Gardens in Chicago. When Wright invited Norton to visit him at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, their mutual admiration for Japanese aesthetics and geometric modernism surely convinced Wright that Norton was well chosen for the job. Since the structure was demolished in 1929, the precise scope of Norton and Henderson’s completed work for Midway Gardens cannot be ascertained with complete authority. The most plausible scenario, however, is that Wright equally divided between Norton and Henderson the responsibilities for designing and decorating the mezzanine level walls of the winter garden. They consisted of two panels, each roughly four feet high by eighteen feet long, interrupted by two turns and the belvederes (two friezes, each roughly ten feet high by eighty feet wide, fitting octagonal walls). Two of Norton’s extant mural studies reveal sporadic female figures incidental against an imaginary landscape of circles, squares and rectangles painted with flat, colored forms. Of these two, the horizontal modello was most likely designed for the winter garden and painted between June 26 and July 31, 1914. What started as a seemingly ideal match between Wright's architectural sensibility and Norton’s aesthetic interests ended much less positively. Dissatisfied with Henderson’s decorations for the belvedere, Wright ordered the artist to correct the work; when he refused to comply, Wright had the work painted out and Henderson left. Some accounts intimate that Norton too was dismissed by Wright, but Norton’s wife recalled her husband leaving in protest over how his friend and colleague had been treated, even though he had planned on executing additional work at Midway Gardens.
Notwithstanding the incident with Wright, Norton and Henderson continued their pursuit of decorative work. By the end of the same year they had collaborated on four medallions for the large corner dining room of the LaSalle Hotel, each image distinguished by heads in the “Pompadour” style with the appropriate powdered wigs. Norton continued teaching mural classes during the academic year and by 1916 had completed twenty mural decorations for another Chicago field house, this time at Hamilton Park. Similar to the history panels at Fuller Park, these painted surfaces continued to show an affinity for Japanese composition and the notan sensitivity to a balance of light and dark hues.
Norton next began a long and productive association with the architectural firm of Purcell and Elmslie who provided Norton with interesting challenges in modern facilities and were largely responsible for introducing Norton’s maturing mural decorations to viewers outside Illinois. His first job in 1917 was a decorative scheme for the Alexander Brothers Manufacturing Plant, Head Office Library, in Philadelphia. Here Norton was once again charged with decorating long, horizontal friezes near the ceiling, a format consistent with the lines of Prairie School architecture. He retained the flat, Japanese-inspired forms of earlier work, but introduced asymmetrical composition to great effect. Norton also designed modern commercial illustrations for the Alexander Brothers Belting Co. In a letter to William Gray Purcell, Norton espoused his forthright approach to advertising illustration, stating that “in order to have any strength, it must be condensed to a few big forms, and in order to have strong color, it must be far enough from a ‘realistic’ scene to permit the use of strong color. The abstraction of form must be consistent with the abstraction of color.” Here Norton demonstrated his sure grasp on modern illustration.
In 1918 Norton designed a poster for U.S. Liberty Bonds in a national competition. His entry and those submitted by Everett Young and James Allen St. John (1872-1957) were the only ones selected from Chicago. Keep These off the U.S.A.: Buy More Liberty Bonds depicted a stark black background dominated by a pair of blood-dripping, gray boots donning spurs and the Kaiser’s emblem. The graphic was visually simple, but the impact was direct and intense. This poster and some commercial work done slightly later for Chicago advertising agency J. Walter Thompson are the last known examples of Norton’s illustration work, suggesting he concentrated more heavily on mural work and teaching from this point on.
The Woodbury County Court House murals in Sioux City, Iowa, completed between 1917 and 1919, were the next Purcell and Elmslie commission, this time under architect William L. Steele. The four horizontal mural panels lining the mezzanine level of the rotunda provided a strong internal focal point within a space consistently animated by spectacular glazed terra cotta, plaster ornamentation and lively stained glass windows. Although borrowing heavily from his Midway Gardens work, Norton revealed that his designs had been “slowly developed, changed and changed again, not in subject matter but in arrangement of spaces and color, to repeat in a subtle way the peculiar beauty of the building itself.” An early court, a rural landscape, an urban scene and a final panel paying homage to soldiers and families of World War I flank the balcony. The depictions are accessible images, appropriate to the nature of the building. Their flat, asymmetrical compositions deftly harmonized with the architectural setting, calling out to passersby, but not too loudly. After this job and a 1918 overmantel decoration for the Clayton F. Summy residence in Hinsdale, Illinois, Norton had a four-year hiatus before resuming his mural work.
During this interim, George Bellows was invited in 1919 to the Art Institute as a painter-in-residence from New York, and with him came the influence of The Eight. Norton befriended him and was, in turn, affected by his work. It was Bellows who interested him in lithography, to the extent that Norton went into debt buying a litho press. Norton continued to make lithographs over the years, some representational genre scenes of contemporary life and others more abstracted and decorative in nature. Perhaps the strongest mark Bellows left on him can be seen in Norton’s easel paintings of the period. Norton’s sudden interest in honestly portraying contemporary urban subjects showed up the very next year. In a letter to his wife in 1920, Norton referred to how Chicago life had become an inspiration:
“Have just come in from wandering about the town. I am finding all sorts of things I can paint here—I already have made two, one of Rush St. Bridge at night and one of the Monkey cage at Lincoln park [sic] which look darn good. I have plans for making a series. I have a hunch these canvases will sell here and no one has done these things before because they don’t see the interesting side of Chicago.”
As late as 1924, Norton painted and exhibited such works, when his Light and Shadow received an Honorable Mention from the jury at the Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute.
The early 1920s mark a veiled period of relative inactivity for Norton. Accounts place him in Saugatuck as a visiting critic during the summer of 1921, but he had no known teaching commitments or mural commissions between the summer of 1920 and fall of 1922. Around this same period, Norton executed several portraits in oil. His sitters included architect and friend Thomas Tallmadge, Charles A. Stevens of the department store chain, Professor Edward W. Hinton of the University of Chicago, friend Murry Nelson, his daughter Nancy and others. Norton, however, rejected commissions whenever possible, not liking the input invariably given by family and bystanders. The sitters were usually depicted in a seated, half- to three- quarter length poses, painted on an approximately thirty by twenty-four inch canvas. For these Norton received between $400 and $500 each.
Beginning in 1923 Norton resumed his mural painting, although much of the work was on a diminished scale from a decade earlier. Purcell and Elmslie hired Norton for two jobs in Minnesota: a small mural in the bank president’s office of National Farmer’s Bank, Owatonna, and an overmantel for the lobby of the First National Bank of Adams. Next came a larger Elmslie commission for a long frieze and two side panels for the Capital Building and Loan Association in Topeka. For the central panel Norton revived the agricultural theme first explored in the Sioux City murals and flanked them with depictions extolling the virtues of Kansas manhood and womanhood. A private commission in 1924 for decorations in the Ernest A. Hamill Residence rounded out the work from this period. Although Norton may not have been as artistically challenged by these jobs, they ushered in important new mural work for him.
Dr. and Mrs. Frank Logan of Chicago hired Norton to complete a series of twelve panels for the Logan Museum of Anthropology, Beloit College, Wisconsin. Norton began sketches for the work during the summer of 1923, while at Saugatuck. The panels, ranging in size up to six by twelve feet, were painted on canvases in Norton’s studio and later installed around the museum walls. The series depicted the evolution of man, from the Anthropoid to the Inca and coincided with specimens found in the museum cases. His need to balance scientific accuracy with aesthetic sensibilities demanded from Norton a new creative approach. The flat, decorative Japanese compositions to which he had turned repeatedly in the past were abandoned. Norton’s work was not an attempt to strictly reproduce nature however the Logan murals were less decorative and more representational than anything he had done to date. The resulting canvases attracted attention from the very beginning when five of the panels were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924, before the installation of all the panels in the Logan Museum the following year. The murals were reproduced as postcards lantern slides, and in many textbooks for over a decade; returned to Chicago and exhibited during the 1933 World’s Fair and continue to impact visitors to the museum in Beloit today.
While finishing work on the Logan murals, Norton worked for George Elmslie on two more projects. Elmslie requested decorations for the kindergarten room of Peirce School, completed in 1925, for which Norton designed a series of twelve, thirty-six by forty-eight inch panels representing the months of the year. The Old Second National Bank in Aurora, Illinois, offered space similar to the Capital Building and Loan: a large central panel and two side panels in the main banking room. Norton chose subject matter of interest to visitors – the history of Aurora- just as he had in Topeka and Sioux City. It is significant that the celebration of small town living depicted here predates similar commemorations in the many murals in public buildings executed during the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project.
In 1925 Norton made his first voyage abroad with Charles Worcester, vice president of the Art Institute of Chicago. After traveling through Brittany and Normandy, he stayed in Paris where he kept a studio for two months at 50 Rue Vercingetorix. Before returning, he journeyed to Honfleur, which inspired many sketches and small works. Although Norton enjoyed himself on this trip and absorbed whatever inspiration he could, he did not feel any strong urge to live there. Instead, in a letter home he denounced European cities as belonging to past centuries and extolled the virtues of American cities as modern and of the present.
Back in the States, Norton expanded his teaching responsibilities. By fall 1925 he was once again engaged with mural classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but by the next year he added teaching at the Studio School of Art. Shortly after this he began the working cartoons for twenty-six Anglican saints which were later carved in stone by H. Langenegger for the reredos of St. Luke’s Cathedral in Evanston, Illinois. In 1928, around the same time the saints were finished, Norton was awarded an honorary Master of Fine Arts Degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. These events, though important, were eclipsed by the professionally rewarding period in Norton’s career that lay ahead.
Norton next embarked on what would be his most rewarding collaboration in mural decoration: his relationship with the architectural firm of Holabird & Root. From the very first commissions in 1928, Norton’s work blossomed with a modern spirit, an infectious enthusiasm and a sureness of style. The shift in his work was so pronounced that he seemed to have cast off any vestiges of his previous work and looked at everything with a completely different viewpoint. The Chicago Motor Club came first, and for it Norton designed a large map of the United States above the elevators which continues to grace the building’s Art Deco lobby today. Norton narrowed his usual palette for this decoration, choosing light greens, peach-reds, and warm and cool grays in low contrast. Repeating stylized motifs of various points of interest throughout the country were located on the map. The overall effect generated a sense of calm and well being. For the first time, Norton’s decoration was not only sensitive to the architectural environment, it fused with it.
For his murals at The Tavern Club, 333 North Michigan Avenue (now closed), Norton faced a new type of challenge. The walls to be decorated were punctuated with doorways, truncated above by relatively low ceilings and below from wainscoting, and diminished by the extensive furnishings. A decade before this, Norton might have designed something more aligned with his friezes for the Alexander Brothers Manufacturing Plant, reducing the figures to a smaller size to fit the space. Instead, Norton took command of space. He made his figures near life-size. What emerged were painted figures inhabiting the same space as the viewer, or, in effect, the viewer became part of the painting. This might have been unsettling were it not for the visual equanimity emanating from soft, restful colors, and exotic flora and fauna. Norton was himself an active member of the Tavern Club, and it is interesting to ponder how he may have responded to the environment as he visited it on a regular basis. The Architectural League of New York, we know, reacted favorably by awarding Norton the Gold Medal of Honor for Mural Painting in 1931.
Norton’s crowning personal and artistic achievement with Holabird & Root came in 1929 with the ceiling mural for the Chicago Daily News Building. Norton’s only ceiling mural, the work covered a 180 foot barrel-vaulted ceiling, under which passed hundreds of commuters each day as they traversed the building’s concourse. Norton’s responsibility was to furnish a modern building supporting a modern enterprise with equally modern decorations. Norton, of course, knew that this type of building, “with its geometrical shapes and its impressive masses, cannot support Renaissance or Gothic decoration.” His design, then, needed to be a new invention, a product of the times. If it were not, Norton, in his mind, would have failed creatively. But fortunately, he met the challenge head-on. His solution was a geometric abstraction of the architectural lines, angles, and spaces, into which were woven symbols of how contemporary news was gathered, printed and distributed. Again for this job Norton chose a limited range of colors, but added golden-yellows. Norton’s careful arrangement of color, shape and pattern created the illusion of layered objects which visually came forward or receded, depending on the point of view. Norton’s disregard for scale in individual objects added to the effect. The interplay, however, was always subtle. Regretfully, Norton’s Chicago Daily News mural no longer occupies its intended environment. In the late 1980s a small section was taken down when it began to separate from its support. In 1993 the rest of the mural was removed, purportedly to ascertain how it might be conserved and reinstalled. At the time of this writing, the mural still languishes in storage, and those who recognize its importance to Chicago mural history wait impatiently for it to be returned home.
Norton’s growing track record of successful murals of the period was not limited exclusively to work for Holabird & Root. In 1930 Norton completed his last job for George Elmslie, a diorama painting for the guest bath of Henry B. Babson Residence in Riverside, Illinois. In that same year, with the assistance from Tom Lea and June Knabel, Norton completed a map mural for the Elizabeth M. Cudahy Memorial Library, Main Reading Room of Loyola University in Chicago. The map documented Jesuit missionary activity in the Great Lakes Region and the Upper Mississippi Valley during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The work was done for Norton’s friend Andrew Rebori of Rebori, Wentworth, Dewey & McCormick, Inc., Architects. This mural’s light, ephemeral palette continues to glow in Loyola’s “cathedral of learning.”
That same year Norton returned to Europe, this time with his wife, where they visited Paris and London. In London, Norton attended the Italian Exhibition at Burlington House where he was deeply impressed by the work of quattrocento artists. From Paris they traveled to Morocco, ending in Marrakesh. Madge Norton remembered her husband being very fond of Morocco because it reminded him of the American Southwest.
Back to work again in Chicago, Norton forged ahead on his next commission from Holabird & Root. What this 1930 mural lacked in size—compared to the Chicago Daily News mural—it made up for in its monolithic presence. Norton selected Ceres, the goddess of agriculture from Roman mythology, to adorn the south wall of the Chicago Board of Trade’s main trading floor. Measuring thirty-one feet tall and only eight feet wide, the towering mural depicts a tall slender female holding a sheave of wheat in one hand and from her other hand coins drop to the ground below. At her feet grows the grain so important to activities of the Board of Trade. Norton severely stylized the figure, simplifying almost to the point of no surface detail. The preliminary drawings for this study indicate Norton did not arrive at the final solution without an evolution of ideas. The final pose of the goddess embodies the essence of Art Deco design. In 1974, the mural was removed to accommodate construction of dual floors in the trading area. Ceres was intended to be placed in an appropriate institution. Instead the mural was stored until re-erected in a freestanding Art Deco frame in the twelfth-floor atrium of the 1982 Helmut Jahn addition.
Three commissions came to Norton in 1931-1932. The first was for an eight-foot aluminum globe, which was mechanically raised and lowered, and a series of wall maps with decorative cartouches illustrating the seven seas. These works were carried out for Graham, Anderson, Probst & White at the Hurley Memorial Hall of Commerce, University of Notre Dame. This was his final map mural. A pair of two semi-circular panels followed it for either side of the stage in the Chicago Normal College Auditorium, now demolished. Both of these were overshadowed by the next commission from Holabird & Root signaling his return to the monolithic figure for the Jefferson County Court House in Birmingham, Alabama.
The dual panels proved to be an aesthetically rewarding experience for Norton, but one that came only after much negotiation and revisions in design. The Old South and The New South followed a format similar to Ceres: a towering central figure with basal activity, this time in the form of schematic narratives. The same large vertical format was carried through to Norton’s final job with Holabird & Root. From the South to the North, Norton traveled to St. Paul where his four designs were placed in the Council Chambers of the Ramsey County Court House and City Hall. For these murals, still extant, Norton translated his admiration for the worker into mural decorations. In a letter to Thomas Ellerbe, he related his idea of using the workers to symbolize the four important activities responsible for the town: the river, railroads, farms and builders. “I want them to be a sort of glorification of the ordinary guy that packed the canoes on the old portage, stacked the grain, drove the spikes and mixed the concrete.” This concept was perhaps borrowed from the Rivera murals he saw in Mexico while traveling with his youngest daughter Nancy. Here both were exposed to the Mexican mural movement as they saw murals by Diego Rivera in Mexico City and Cuernavaca. Norton’s works during this period indicated he would have been closely aligned with America’s own mural movement during the orks Progress Administration. Had Norton lived a decade longer, who knows what he may have accomplished. But even with his Minnesota murals, he began losing ground in his health. Assistant Tom Lea had to complete these murals when Norton became too ill.
After the many watercolors and sketches created on his 1933 trip with Charles West to Barbados, Norton completed his final murals for the Century of Progress World’s Fair, held in Chicago in 1933 and 1934. Norton designed five murals for the Fair, all for the Hall of Science. Stylistically Norton seemed to have come full circle in these works. The Tree of Knowledge, The History of Technical Science, The History of Applied Science, The Dimensions of Natural Objects in Miles and Wave Lengths made a nod to some of Norton’s early illustrations. Bold shapes, strong contrasts, and overlapping compositions were all there. A new direction, however, was found in the terrazzo ground panels for the esplanade of the Adler Planetarium, which were also designed by Norton and Tom Lea. Norton’s earlier work made it to the Fair, too. His Logan Museum murals and two works from the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent collection were also exhibited. With the Fair’s emphasis on progressiveness and his own interests in all things modern, Norton must have felt at home. In many ways, the spirit of the Fair symbolized what he struggled to achieve throughout his life: a constant development of intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual matters.
In the fall of 1933, then gravely ill, Norton and his wife journeyed to Colony Gardens, South Carolina, near Beaumont. Norton traveled there with little hope of returning, yet he didn’t give up entirely until the end. In a letter from Colony Gardens to his assistant Margrette Oatway Dornbusch and her husband, Norton expressed concern over money matters, stating he would need to quit all the clubs except the Lake Zurich golf club in order to get a financial grip. He never had an opportunity to make that sacrifice. He died of stomach cancer on January 1, 1934, at a hospital in Charleston, South Carolina. Services were held for him in St. Luke’s Cathedral in Evanston, where his drawings for the saints had been turned into three dimensions. Norton’s ashes were scattered at Saugatuck. His passing was a loss to his family, his friends, his students, and to the world of art. Fortunately Norton left behind a visual legacy, and renewed interest in preserving his mural work may well assure his legacy will live on for future generations. A timely eulogy was unknowingly given by just two week before the artist’s death when critic Clarence J. Bulliet stated:
“Mr. Norton, who, by reason of actual accomplishment, is easily the leader of Chicago mural painters.”
FOR FOOTNOTES PLEASE CONTACT US