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John Warner Norton (7 March 1876 – 7 January 1934) was a muralist and easel artist who pioneered the field in the United States.
Norton was born in Lockport, Illinois, 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 his families business, 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.
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Norton joined Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. 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).
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 that artists could interpret the world around them. He repeatedly used the principles learned from these works in his own early work. 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. 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.
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. 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, MI 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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
After 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. In the late 1920’s Norton embarked on what would be his most rewarding collaboration in mural decoration: his relationship with the architectural firm of Holabird & Root. 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.
Norton designed five murals for the Century of Progress World’s Fair held in Chicago during 1933 – 1934, 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. 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, MI.
Thanks to Jim L. Zimmer for contribution to this biography.
Noted works by John Warner Norton-
• 180 Foot long ceiling mural for the concourse of the Chicago Daily News Building (1929)
• Ceres mural in the Chicago Board of Trade Building (1930)
• Old South & New South, murals in the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, AL
• American Heritage Series at the Hamilton Park Field House, Chicago
• Four murals at the St. Paul MN city hall
• Twelve murals comprising The History of Mankind (1923) at the Logan Museum of Anthropology, Beloit College in Wisconsin
• Navaho, mural for the Cliff Dwellers Club (1909) where he was a founding member.