Ralph Norton’s exceptional art collection fits the exact profile of those which established the Art Institute of Chicago, Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A wealthy Northern industrialist – Norton served as president of Chicago’s Acme Steel from 1923 to 1941 and Chairman of the Board from 1941 to 1948 – he would have been expected to bequest his personal collection to a major big city museum adding to its already prestigious holdings.
Norton didn’t do that.
Norton and his wife began spending time in Palm Beach, Florida during the 1930s. Enamored with the area and deciding to create a new home for his art trove instead of adding it to that of the Morgans, Mellons and Carnegie’s in Chicago or New York, Norton began constructing his own museum in West Palm Beach. In 1941, the Norton Gallery and School of Art opened as the first fine arts institution in South Florida.
Today, that museum, the Norton Museum of Art, not only displays Norton’s personal art collection determinedly built through his death in 1953, but also a stunning array of more recently acquired masterpieces across five collecting departments: European, American, Chinese, Contemporary and Photography.
The museum reopens to the public November 20 following a long COVID closure.
The Norton’s holdings in Modern art, both European and American, represents the finest public collection of Modern art in Florida thanks to the foresight of Norton’s shrewd collecting and an ongoing acquisition program fueled by the Palm Beach area’s astonishing wealth.
Monet and Picasso
During the height of Norton’s collecting in the first half of the 20th century, European art was viewed as vastly superior to all others by collectors and critics on both sides of the Atlantic. The Norton features prime examples from most of the major figures, one highlight being Claude Monet’s Gardens of the Villa Moreno, Bordighera (1884).
Monet is best known for his paintings of northern France, but he journeyed south as well. This toasty, luminous picture set on the Italian Riviera is as good as you’ll see of the work he did there.
Paul Gauguin’s Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889) stands as another highlight. This painting, which also serves as a self-portrait, may represent the crown jewel of the entire museum. A strong argument could be made that this is the most important piece of Modern art in the state of Florida and perhaps all of the Southeast.
This painting is so extraordinary to Gaugin’s body of work that it was loaned to the National Gallery of Art in London for its blockbuster Gaugin portraits exhibit which closed January 26 of 2020. The picture receives mention in the third paragraph of the National Gallery’s exhibition overview online, before mention of any other work from the show.
Also worth noting are an energetic, early Pablo Picasso pastel sketch, an usual Cubist sculpture of a woman’s head by Picasso, a typically gorgeous Camille Pissarro landscape, a portrait by Paul Cezanne – exceedingly rare outside of the country’s mega museums – and the largest Georges Braque painting you’re likely ever to see – created with sand mixed into his oil paint.
Hidden Gem: Henri Matisse’s The Two Rays (1920) looks unlike anything you’ve ever seen from him.
Pollock and O’Keeffe
Norton’s collecting didn’t ignore American painters, nor have successive generations of museum acquisition committees. Thank them for the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s 1945 canvas, Night Mist, a fidgety, kinetic painting set against a most unusual black background.
Ernest Lawson’s Hoboken Water Front (1930) is a bruising, brawling, hairy knuckled painting. Grimy, choking exhaust belches from the smokestacks of ships crammed into harbor, roiling the water. Feel the presence of men working and financing these ships as they try wrestling princely or piddling rewards from their toil on the water.
Catch your breath with Georgia O’Keeffe’s serene Red Flower (1919) or Edward Hopper’s breathless August in the City (1945) vacated New York apartment.
The Big Apple also serves as subject for Stuart Davis’ eye-popping New York Mural (1932), another pickup after Norton’s death. Davis seemed to paint with brighter colors and more precise lines than any of his contemporaries. You could slice cheese with his lines they’re so sharp. His colors appear fluorescent, as if he’s painting with neon.
Hidden gem: Grace Hartigen’s life-sized self-portrait demands you spend time with it, pondering what she meant the picture to say about herself.
That is just a glimpse of the Norton’s European and American Modern art. You could spend hours, or days, inspecting the more historic paintings, the Chinese holdings, photography, contemporary work and garden. Or not. The Norton Museum is perfectly scalable to your interest level. It’s small enough to allow casual visitors to breeze through and hit the highlights in just over an hour, yet the material inside possesses significant weight to easily allow for several hours and multiple return visits for art junkies.
Since debuting a massive renovation in February of 2019 which increased exhibition space by 35%, the Norton’s main entrance has moved to South Dixie Highway. Greeting visitors now are a pair of made-for-Instagram photo opportunities with a 19-foot-tall sculpture, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, and the museum’s iconic, 80-year-old, 65-foot Banyan tree.
Entrance fees for the general public are $18 per visitor with seniors (60+) being $15. Children under 12 are free as are active U.S. military and immediate family with a valid identification. FREE ADMISSION to all is available Fridays and Saturdays.
While this tends to increase attendance, to completely avoid crowds, take advantage of the museum’s Friday night hours until 10 PM. This is the best time to visit as crowds disappear allowing for “alone time” with favorite works, up close, no jostling.
The museum’s parking lot is located directly across the street from the entrance (1501 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach, FL 33401). Fees are $5 per car.
Conveniently located less than five miles from I-95, driving from the north, take Exit 70 (Okeechobee Boulevard). Follow Okeechobee Boulevard east to South Dixie Highway. Turn right (south) and travel 1/2 mile. Traveling from the south on I-95, you can also take Exit 69 (Belvedere Road) east to South Dixie Highway, and turn left (north) for about one mile.
If you are visiting from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale or points south, consider ditching your car for the new Brightline trains which connect the cities.
For accommodations, the Hilton West Palm Beach offers convenient access to everything the area has to offer and is less than a mile from the Norton, a pleasant walk during mild weather. Treat yourself to its fabulous breakfast buffet. Lounging by the Hilton’s resort-style pool will have you feeling as though you’re in that Monet painting of Bordighera.