Norton Simon: The Best Museum You Haven't Visited

Dancers in the Rotunda at  the Paris Opera,  1895, by Edgar Degas i i

hide captionThe Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., features the vast art collection of its namesake, businessman Norton Simon. Edgar Degas' 1895 painting, Dancers in the Rotunda at the Paris Opera, is among the 8,000 works of art Simon collected over three decades.

Norton Simon Art Foundation
Dancers in the Rotunda at  the Paris Opera,  1895, by Edgar Degas

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., features the vast art collection of its namesake, businessman Norton Simon. Edgar Degas' 1895 painting, Dancers in the Rotunda at the Paris Opera, is among the 8,000 works of art Simon collected over three decades.

Norton Simon Art Foundation

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., just might be America's least known great museum. It houses a vast collection of works — from South Asian sculptures to works by Europe's Old Masters, Impressionists, and contemporary Americans — yet even Californians who live nearby say they've "always meant to go but ..." The museum tends to attract more European than American visitors.

Simon, pictured above in the early 1980s, stands in front of one of the paintings in his collection, Rembrandt's Portrait of a Boy. Simon died in 1993. i i

hide captionSimon, pictured above in the early 1980s, stands in front of one of the paintings in his collection, Rembrandt's Portrait of a Boy. Simon died in 1993.

Norton Simon Art Foundation
Simon, pictured above in the early 1980s, stands in front of one of the paintings in his collection, Rembrandt's Portrait of a Boy. Simon died in 1993.

Simon, pictured above in the early 1980s, stands in front of one of the paintings in his collection, Rembrandt's Portrait of a Boy. Simon died in 1993.

Norton Simon Art Foundation

In a comprehensive new book, the museum's senior curator, Sara Campbell, sheds light on this often-overlooked museum and the man who founded it. Collector Without Walls tells the story of Norton Simon — the businessman behind Hunt-Wesson Foods, Canada Dry and Avis — who had an eye for great art and a knack for collecting it.

The successful industrialist approached his art museum with a businesslike efficiency. When he came to visit, he would inspect his collection, but never linger, Campbell recalls: "He would make a circuit of every single work of art and walk as fast as he could."

Simon hired Campbell 41 years ago as a typist. She remembers him as a wonderful boss who solicited opinions about art from everyone.

"He asked everybody what they thought about the collection," Campbell says. "He would ask me, he would ask the most prestigious museum director, and he would ask his cook."

Holy Family with Music-Making Angels, c. 1520, by Flanders i i

hide captionAbove, a detail of a 16th-century tapestry, Holy Family With Music-Making Angels, by Flanders. Enlarge to see the full wool tapestry, woven with silk and gold threads.

The Norton Simon Foundation
Holy Family with Music-Making Angels, c. 1520, by Flanders

Above, a detail of a 16th-century tapestry, Holy Family With Music-Making Angels, by Flanders. Enlarge to see the full wool tapestry, woven with silk and gold threads.

The Norton Simon Foundation

But after gathering the information so democratically, Simon would do whatever he wanted, Campbell says.

Chief Curator Carol Togneri met Simon when she was working at the Getty Museum. He had come to the Getty in search of her boss, but that curator was unavailable. So Simon asked Togneri to pass along this question: "Of all the Raphaels in the world, where does mine come in among the top five?"

Simon constantly asked such questions. He wanted to be the best and have the best — and often, he succeeded. His accomplishment is measured by some 8,000 works of art, collected over three decades, starting in 1954.

No more than 800 or 900 of those pieces are on display in his Pasadena museum at any one time, so visitors can't see everything in a single visit. You won't fall victim to common museum perils — sore feet or exhaustion. And the museum is rarely crowded, so there's no need to fight for a closer look at Degas' dancers, early Flemish tapestries, 14th-century altarpieces or Rembrandt's Portrait of a Boy — thought to be his son Titus.

Portrait of a  Boy,  1655-60, by Rembrandt i i

hide captionPortrait of a Boy is one of three Rembrandt paintings in Simon's collection. If Simon had had his way, there would have been four; the Metropolitan Museum of Art outbid him for Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.

The Norton Simon Foundation
Portrait of a  Boy,  1655-60, by Rembrandt

Portrait of a Boy is one of three Rembrandt paintings in Simon's collection. If Simon had had his way, there would have been four; the Metropolitan Museum of Art outbid him for Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.

The Norton Simon Foundation

The portrait of the young boy with golden locks and rosy cheeks is one of three Rembrandt paintings in the collection; but if Simon had had his way, there would have been four. He had planned to bid against the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the master's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, but wouldn't match their bid of $2.3 million. So the painting belongs to the Met; it's the One That Got Away.

Simon kept careful track of all the numbers. "He remembered every price he ever paid," Campbell says, down to the currency and its conversion rate.

Over the years, Simon began loosening his purse strings. Twenty years later, he bought his most expensive piece — for a whopping $4.2 million. The painting is a 15th-century resurrection scene by Flemish painter Dieric Bouts, priced because of its rarity. But the regal depiction of Jesus, wrapped in a red cloth, also has outstanding artistic merits, says Togneri.

"It is a great painting," she says. "Look at the detail. Look at the way that the armor is painted — the reflection of the morning light — that brooding sky."

Resurrection, c. 1455, Dieric Bouts i i

hide captionThe most expensive piece Simon ever bought was Resurrection, by Flemish painter Dieric Bouts. He purchased the rare, 15th-century work for $4.2 million.

The Norton Simon Foundation
Resurrection, c. 1455, Dieric Bouts

The most expensive piece Simon ever bought was Resurrection, by Flemish painter Dieric Bouts. He purchased the rare, 15th-century work for $4.2 million.

The Norton Simon Foundation

Before the Bouts and the Rembrandts, Simon's earliest purchases were comparatively modest. He paid $16,000 for a late Renoir and $300 for a painting by 20th century American artist Dan Lutz. He bought the works to decorate his new house, Campbell says. His wife and a decorator had picked out some art for the new home in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Simon didn't like their selections. There happened to be an art gallery next door to his barber shop in the old Ambassador Hotel. Every Saturday morning, when he went to have his hair cut, he'd see art in the window display.

Over the next years, Simon bought 80 works of art, spending about $1.5 million. He was a quick learner and a big spender. His tutors in art education were important art dealers in New York. It was a rich education. But Simon was above all a businessman — and he collected art like one.

"Mr. Simon was an industrialist, a businessman," Campbell says. "One of the practices in his business was to acquire companies that were not doing well and to turn them around. It was almost as if he collected companies. I think that he became feverish about art in the same way."

Red-1966, 1966 Thomas  Downing i i

hide captionThomas Downing's Red-1966 will be among the paintings on display during the museum's upcoming exhibition, Surface Truths: Abstract Painting in the Sixties.

Steven Oliver/Norton Simon Museum, Gift of Mrs. Donald Brewer
Red-1966, 1966 Thomas  Downing

Thomas Downing's Red-1966 will be among the paintings on display during the museum's upcoming exhibition, Surface Truths: Abstract Painting in the Sixties.

Steven Oliver/Norton Simon Museum, Gift of Mrs. Donald Brewer

Simon appreciated the art that he collected, but kept an emotional distance from it — especially when it came to buying and selling.

"There are times when he has been quoted saying, 'I have to maintain some distance from this or it will consume me,'" says Campbell.

Simon needed to be able to decide when to sell a piece and when to walk away from a difficult dealer.

"Sometimes it worked, [and] the dealers quickly lowered their price and sometimes they didn't," Campbell says. But Simon always had to be prepared to walk away.

Simon died in 1993, but since 1974, the artwork he collected have been on view at the handsome Pasadena museum that bears his name. In many ways, it's a museum of "don't." The museum doesn't buy, or lend, or borrow any of its works — and it doesn't put on blockbuster shows, either. But what it does is display glorious works of art with elegance and style for any visitor who makes time for the voyage.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: