From his earliest work he showed a definite inclination toward a use of decorative, conventionalized form rather than any literal interpretation of nature. His notebooks of the early period show him making a careful record, first of the surfaces of objects, then of their underlying organization and design – the first evidences of his lifelong attempt to understand outward surfaces by probing for inward structure. In his student days at the Art Institute of Chicago he had observed a basic difference between his own developing point of view and that of the influence around him. He preferred to study from nature, and not from the technique of a current painting tradition. Lacking the ego-centricity to declare himself a revolutionary, he quietly and independently set about building his own standards, taking from the academic training offered by the Institute whatever seemed useful to him as a craftsman. But he left academic ideals severely alone.
His interest in the "Armory Show" in 1913, America's first comprehensive view of the revolutionary work of Cèzanne, Picasso, Matisse, Braque and a host of other modern European painters, stimulated Norton and set him to work at his own ideas about the structure and design of forms with a new and bolder impetus, developing a point of view which later worked itself out in the ceiling decoration of the Chicago Daily News Building. It is important to note that Norton liked to disregard the emphasis placed by modernists upon "expression," "sensation" and the like. He saw in modern art a new and exciting realm of purely creative form, a study of structure liberated from the surface of realism – an intellectual adventure.
A man so conscientious in the search after the proper final form for an idea would naturally shun a lapse into a single manner, that he might not narrow a creative view of the world, nor impose any limitation on the adventure of the mind. His inevitable stamp is on all he did, but there is no repeated and instantly recognized Norton manner.
No discussion of John Norton's career as a painter would be complete without a discussion of his career as a teacher…As an instructor he asked his students to concern themselves with an analysis of the structure of the visible world, in the belief that the artist's problem must be to understand and record that structure. He saw nature as a reference book for artists, the forms of art being necessarily founded upon the hints contained within it. And to the principles of structure revealed therein the artist was bound; but his virtue was always measured by the use of those principles in building a new world, complete in itself as the appearance of nature is not complete. To copy an appearance was futile, since the limited means of pigment on canvas could never compete with reality. The success of a painting rested, therefore, in the selection and organization of a specimen from nature, so selected and so organized that it should present to the mind of man a more unified, hence more forceful and complete vision of that specimen than nature itself could give. Only in such completeness, he believed, could art suggest more than nature.
When teaching drawing from a model, Norton asked students to disregard all surface detail, all accidental effects of light, and instead to project upon paper the elemental structure of the big, important forms, relating each to the other in space. Not until they could define and place in spatial relationship these elemental solid forms were they entitled to the use of what he called "ornament," the anatomical variations of surface, texture, and the effects produced by a particular light and atmosphere. These elemental forms he conceived as variations of simple geometrical solids.
Norton's work sprang always from a curiosity about the mystery of the world around him – never from aesthetic theory, nor any desire to express the importance of his own individual soul. Unless an idea by its very force demanded a canvas, he did not paint. Unlike so many painters, he could not go through the automatic motions of filling canvas after canvas with nothing but a desire to paint well. A picture was not an idea about art, but an idea about the world, recorded in terms of art. Art never became an end in itself; to Norton it was rather a means whereby he might come to a deeper understanding of his life.
John Norton's work, and the ideas upon which it is built, offer some hope to those who are weary of the self-indulgent individualism of modern art. Against so much of talk and triviality, his honesty and purpose stand clearly defined. Trained academically, he sloughed the form of its thought, but held to the respect it had given him for the craftsman, the skilled worker. Developing his art in a period of artistic chaos, he chose to search for the foundation upon which to build a grand and impersonal art to function in the decoration of architecture. From that search he did not deviate; to it he brought a sharp and constructive mind, a deep humility, and the integrity of a great man. What he accomplished he did alone, and these accomplishments speak insistently to the future.
John W. Norton American Painter, 1876-1934, An Appreciation of His Work by Tom Lea, Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1935, pages 33 – 45.