Sharon Lorenzo Visits the Norton.

If you are lucky enough to visit Palm Beach, the Norton Museum of Art should be on your list of things to see.  Today it is the largest museum in the state with 8200 works of art from ancient to modern in painting, sculpture, artifacts, and photography. Founded by a brilliant entrepreneur from Chicago, Ralph Hubbard Norton and his wife Sallie Elizabeth Calhoun in 1941, today’s building has been expanded from the original structure by the famous architect, Norman Foster, in 2013.  Funded by a major capital campaign with a new director, Ghislaine d’Humieres, the Norton has been blessed with many people visiting and moving to Florida as a safe tax haven and winter wonderland.[1]

Norton grew up in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago and visited its Art Institute collection during his years at the University of Chicago. He went on to work for his father and uncle who had founded a manufacturing business to make metal cans and plates which eventually became Acme Steel Company with $100 million of annual sales by 1950.[2] Ralph had the opportunity to see the art at the Armory Show in 1913 in New York City and according to his four children, Beatrice, Patricia, Calhoun and Christopher, he became an avid art fan. In 1935 Ralph and his wife began winter visits to Florida and bought a small house in Lake Worth. They became inaugural members of the local Society of the Four Arts which still exists today in Palm Beach with annual shows and lectures on music, art, literature, drama, and film. [3]

Norton Museum Archives, 1941, Mr. and Mrs. R. Norton.

Ghislaine and his curatorial staff have divided the collection into the following categories:  American, Chinese, Contemporary, European and Photography. Examples from each one should be of such interest that every visitor will find a favorite.

American Art:  one of my preferences in the history of American painting is the artist Childe Hassam.  Here we see his depiction of Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts on a sunny summer day in 1899.

Childe Hassam (1859-1935) oil on canvas.

Chinese Objects: I wondered if Ralph Norton and his wife were tempted to use this ancient wine ewer at a dinner party before they donated it to the Norton Museum.  Cast in bronze in about 1200 B.C., I am not sure it works with Chardonnay!

Wine Ewer, Shang Dynasty, 1600-1050 BC. Bronze.

Contemporary Works: In contrast to these older pieces, the Norton has added some works such as this twentieth century installation by Dan Flavin who works with LED lighting.  It does truly light up a dark corner in the Museum!

Dan Flavin, Untitled, 1971.

European Works of Art: Constantin Brancusi was a sculptor from France whose work Norton would have seen at the Armory Show in NYC in 1913. Ironically the U.S. customs office charged a duty for the importation of his art, calling it a kitchen utensil. After a hearing, a local magistrate finally agreed that his new work of art was not subject to such a tax but was a new idea coming to the United States for the first time. [4]

Constantin Brancusi, Mademoiselle Pogany II, Bronze.

Photography:   This collection at the Norton ranges from early works in the 19th century to images of the present day. This one I could not resist.  Who in the world makes a hat from iguanas?

Graciela Iturbide, Mexico. Senora de los Iguanas. 1979.

The Norton is also an active member of the American Association of Museums and borrows works of art for temporary exhibitions.  This work from the Hispanic Society in New York is on loan while the roof of its building is being repaired. The Spanish artist, Joaquin Sorolla, was hired to paint large canvases and murals depicting the many regions of Spain. This canvas shows fisherman in Valencia trying to unbeach their boat after delivering cattle.

Afternoon Light, 1903. J. Sorolla (1862-1923)

The Norton Museum is such a lovely testament to a family who treasured putting their resources into an art collection that would survive for the public at large to enjoy in future generations.  With excellent tour guides, a lovely cafeteria, and an enticing bookshop, the lucky visitor can take away many memories and mementos to share with family and friends.

Norton Museum of Art: 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach, Fla. Open 7 days a week.

Header Graphic Courtesy of the Norton Museum archives.









[1] Ellen E. Roberts, Ralph Norton and his Museum, 2019, p. 19.

[2] Ibid, p. 18.

[3] Ibid, p. 33.

[4] Patty Gerstenblith, Art, Cultural Heritage and the Law. 2012, p. 12.