The Norton has had a profound interest in both American history and American art and, consequently, has amassed a collection that ranges from pieces created during the colonial period to contemporary works. Most of these are arranged in chronological fashion in special exhibit rooms in order to convey a sense of time and place in association with the value of the art for its own sake.
Some of the most significant pieces from the early American period include rare books, such as a double elephant folio edition of John James Audubon's The Birds of America, one of only one hundred remaining in the world today, and a collection of Early Colonial Silver dated from 1690 to 1800, which includes several items by well-known patriot and silversmith, Paul Revere, featuring a pair of mugs (or canns) made circa 1768.
Celebrating our revolutionary past, the American section contains a large assemblage of
portraits in miniature, depicting famous American figures such as George Washington,
Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and Sam Houston. These
miniatures were painted in watercolor on very thin ivory and, as a result, are displayed
in glass cases located throughout the American Gallery.
One of the seminal events in American history, particularly for the southern states, was, of course, the Civil War, or, as it is sometimes known, the War for Southern Independence. In acknowledgement of its significance, the Gallery has established the Civil War Gallery, an exhibition room which features the famed equestrian portraits of French artist L.M.D. Guillaume (who made his home in America as an adult), which include P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Joseph E. Johnston, John Singleton Mosby, and, of course, Robert E. Lee. Other events and leaders during the war are also depicted in various paintings, sculptures, and documents in this gallery.
The Gallery has a notable collection of paintings celebrating nineteenth century American landscape, including a large number from the Hudson River School. This includes important works such as A Snow Squall by Thomas Cole, founder and "father" of the Hudson River School, as well as paintings by his disciples, Asher Durand, Jasper Cropsey, Frederic Church, and Thomas Moran. Other movements that derived from the Hudson River School are also represented, such as the luminist painting On the Cornish Coast by William Trost Richards, and the Barbizon-influenced, impressionistic landscapes of George Inness, Sunset and Edge of the Hill. The Norton has an entire exhibition space devoted to the magnificent landscapes of Albert Bierstadt, who is sometimes also placed within the Rocky Mountain School for his remarkable paintings of that locale as exemplified by Rocky Mountain Scene with Bear and the famous Yosemite Valley.
There are also some remarkable still lifes in the Norton, including significant works by Martin Johnson Heade, originally a landscape painter like those above. Heade's outstanding ability to work with line and color in the luminist tradition led him to create amazing still lifes, including the widely known and reproduced Giant Magnolias.
The R. W. Norton Art Gallery is particularly well-known for its amazing collection of American Western art, with several exhibition rooms devoted to the works of Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington. Russell, who actually was a working cowboy for a number of years, produced startlingly original work using accurate detail and bold, vivid color to depict the scenes and events he had witnessed, including the domestic life of Native Americans, cattle drives, buffalo hunts, and the long struggle between white settlers and Native Americans over the American land. An outstanding example of this work is one of Russell's largest oil paintings, The Trappers' Last Stand. In addition to his paintings and drawings, the Norton has one of the largest and most complete collections of Russell's bronze sculptures ever assembled.
Another Western artist famous for his bronze sculptures as well as his paintings and drawings is Frederic Remington. Remington is undoubtedly responsible for the images most Americans call to mind when they think of the Old West. The Norton has a number of his famous works, including bronzes like The Bronco Buster and Coming Through the Rye and paintings like Coming to the Rodeo and The Twilight of the Indian in addition to other Remington memorabilia. Altogether, the Norton has one of the finest collections of Remington's work in America.
Twentieth-century American art is represented at the Norton as well with a number of paintings, sculptures, and other art pieces. The contemporary collection includes a wide selection of landscapes by prominent artists Felix Kelly and Peter Ellenshaw. While both artists lived in Great Britain, both spent time in America and, in Felix Kelly's case, have painted uniquely American scenes. Mr. Ellenshaw is known for his precisely detailed paintings of well-known places around the world, such as Saint Mark's Square in Venice and Monet's Garden in Giverny, France. In addition to these and others, the Norton is particularly pleased to have his magnificent 7' X 12' painting, Himalayan Mountains, Thyangboche Monastery.