top of page

No. 45 John Warner Norton


When John Norton died in a hospital at Charleston, S.C., in 1934, Chicago began rubbing its eyes, waking up to the fact that a very industrious painter had been busy here for thirty-odd years, accomplishing, without much fanfare, an amazing amount of work, and wondering if quantity was matched by quality. Thomas E. Tallmadge, an architect, Norton’s best friends, wrote letters to the papers insisting that a genius had passed, one of those who have to die to win immortality. Other friends of Norton accepted the theory, enlarged on nit, and spread it about, starting a “legend.”


Along comes now Mr. Tallmadge, joined by Norton’s pupil and chief assistant, Tom Lee, with a monograph, prohibitively expensive but fully subscribed, to congeal the legend.


Mr. Tallmadge discussed “John W. Norton, The Man;” Mr. Lee, “John W. Norton, The Artist.” And the book is full of pictures from which posterity may judge the text after Norton’s murals, many of them, still in their youthful vigor, shall have succumbed to the inevitable wrecking crews that make so much quicker disposition of great buildings in our civilization than “decay and old time.”


It is from the proof sheets of this monograph that the material for what follows is largely taken, supplemented by newspaper “obits” at the time of Norton’s death, and by testimony of pupils who treasure memories of his broadmindedness, as Norton did the Catholic vision of his own instructor, Fred Richardson.

Norton had painted murals since 1908, with ever-increasing industry, one job accomplished being a recommendation for the next. But he was not a good “showman” — he didn’t know how to “circus his stuff.” As a consequence, the “art historians” have failed to take cognizance, so far, of his murals for Beloit College, for the Tavern Club, for The Chicago Daily News building, for courthouses at Birmingham, Ala., and St. Paul, Minn., and for Notre Dame University, which has a football team that manages to make the newsreels.


“I have a strong feeling,” says Mr. Tallmadge, “to a conviction that the future will place him high in the realms of art, far higher than his contemporaries and his friends would have dared to place him despite their great respect and love for him. Louis Sullivan had to die to be recognized as the father of the new architecture, first by his friends and later by the world.”


Norton’s failure to overwhelm his contemporaries may be partly due to a lack of “showmanship” in his work as well as in it “press agentry.”


The murals in the ceiling of the concourse of The Daily News building will illustrate. Thousands of people pass through the concourse daily, catching and leaving the suburban trains of the Northwestern station — and literally hundreds of these do not know the murals are there. Many more hundreds have seem them once or twice and have forgotten them.


The reason is simple. The murals are high up, the busy man rushing to and from his train has to bend back his head to see them. He walks normally head slightly bowed. Norton has provided nothing on the pillars, eye level, to tempt the eyes to travel up, to force the head to bend back. Maybe the architects wouldn’t let him, or maybe he should have fought for his rights. At any rate, good or bad, his murals aren’t seen — and that automatically makes them bad. For murals, by their nature, are to be seen as ornament.


“The steady growth of power and character continued evenly up to the last project before his death,” comments Mr. Lee. Norton, an artist of intelligence and vision, still progressing, might ultimately have attained in life what Mr. Tallmadge predicts for him in death.


John Walter Norton was born at Lockport, Ill., March 7, 1876, in the mansion of his father, John Lyman Norton, paper manufacturer and wealthiest citizen of that Chicago suburb. He was an outdoors boy from the start, hunting, fishing, and riding through the woods with his elder brothers, killing his first deer at 14.


He entered Harvard, class of ’98, and was popular on the campus, contributing illustrations to the Lampoon and engaging in all social activities. But his father was caught in the financial flurries of the Cleveland-McKinley epoch, losing the greater part of his money — so much of it that John was withdrawn from Harvard and set to making his own living. He got a job tutoring the son of Herman Reim, Chicago capitalist, who had more successfully weathered the “panic.” He took the lad west where they read Shakespeare together “in the shade of the giant sequoias,” as Mr. Tallmadge puts it, and where Norton “expounded Euclid to a fascinated boy within the periphery of the Sierra Nevada’s.”


That tutelage job accomplished, Norton “rode down into Arizona and got a job as a cowhand on a ranch.” The Spanish-American War broke out. Norton, like all outdoors young men, contracted the Teddy Roosevelt enthusiasm, joined the “rough riders,” but got only as far as Florida before the end of the war.


Back in Lockport at 23, he worked for a short time in the office of his father’s mills, then entered the Art Institute of Chicago. Here he was fortunate enough to have as a teacher the Fred Richardson who looms so large on the  horizon of the period.


Also, a sister who had traveled in the Orient brought Japanese art to his attention. Like Whistler and many another, Norton was intrigued. He went down into Chicago’s Chinatown where he bought brushes used by the Orientals for making their delicate tracery. When he came later to paint murals, the Japanese influence made itself felt.


After finishing at the Art Institute, Norton became an instructor at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, just established by Carl Werntz. Here, and later at the Art Institute, Norton made an enviable reputation as an instructor. Open-minded himself (grasping not only the odd arts of the Orient but the “jazz madness” of the Armory Show of French “moderns”), Norton encouraged his advanced pupils to broaden their horizons, think for themselves and follow their spontaneous impulses.


Early in his teaching career, he got a job designing advertisements for the Santa Fe railroad and returned for a sketching visit to his old camping ground, Arizona. He painted a mural for the Grand Canyon Hotel and back in Chicago did his first mural here, “Navajo” for the Cliff Dwellers.


The success of “Navajo” made him “mural minded” and he entered again an extensive and intensive study. The “Japanese influence” found its way into his pattern,” to be replaced later by the “abstract” cubes of the French “modern” things he saw in the Armory Show. Abstraction, French style, enters largely into his ceiling decorations for The Daily News concourse.


He had a studio in the Tree Building and a smaller workshop at Saugatuck. But for his huge murals he rented the old Essanay movie studio on North Clark Street at Austin. “Here Charles Chaplin worked in his first film – and we delighted in telling John,” says Tallmadge, “that it was still being used for the production of funny pictures.”


Two excursions abroad, Europe and as far south as Morocco, and a journey into Mexico, together with frequent revisits of the west were included in Norton’s adult travels. As he progressed, he more and more determinedly discarded the “influences” to paint purely American murals, with Indians and western scenes favored, seconded by Negroes and the south. He selected native types for his localities.


The last two or three years of his life were passed in painful and incurable illness, but in continued industry. He visited Barbados, the Smokey mountains and finally the seacoast of South Carolina, where, in Charleston, death relieved his suffering.


During those days Tom Tallmadge gave Norton a one-man show in his own architectural studio, which was visited by many friends. For Norton, as at Harvard, was popular socially – the Cliff Dwellers and the Tavern Club were favorite haunts. After his death the Art Institute staged a big memorial show.

bottom of page