Norton Simon Biography

One of the most profound means of human communication is the visual arts. By establishing a meaningful dialogue between an artist's vision of the world and our own perceptions, art can help us to understand ourselves more fully. Moreover, art at its finest gives us a deep sense of history, tradition, and the true potentialities of man's creativity. In today's world where often scientific development is regarded as the highest goal and where the individual frequently feels alienated from himself and those around him, the role of art becomes increasingly important in keeping open the lines of communication.
- Norton Simon, 1972

Few individuals are so gifted as to leave an indelible mark in either commerce or culture, yet Norton Simon left his in both. Entrepreneur, industrialist, philanthropist, it is difficult to describe the rare blend of faculties possessed by this brilliant and visionary connoisseur.

Norton Simon believed deeply in the power of art to communicate. One of the outstanding American art collectors of the twentieth century, he kept as a guiding principle his regard for the ability of the visual arts to inspire and reflect the human condition.

Norton Winfred Simon was born on February 5, 1907 in Portland, Oregon. He graduated high school in San Francisco at the age of 16. Early on, Mr. Simon showed a strong proclivity for business and, in 1925, he moved to Los Angeles where he established a sheet metal distribution company.

Mr. Simon was a passionate businessman, with enthusiasm and a talent for negotiation. In 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, Norton Simon invested $7,000 in a floundering juice bottling company. He eventually turned his investment into the highly prosperous Hunt Foods, Inc.

Through strategy, mergers, and acquisitions, he built Norton Simon Inc., a multi-industry, multinational corporation that included Hunt-Wesson Foods, McCall’s Publishing, Saturday Review of Literature, Canada Dry Corporation, Max Factor cosmetics, and Avis Car Rental.

Norton Simon's accomplishments as an art collector equaled his extraordinary achievements in business. Over a period of less than 30 years, he amassed what is widely regarded as one of the world's greatest private art collections.

Norton Simon’s interest in art began in the 1950s with the works of Degas, Renoir, Gauguin and Cézanne. In the 1960s he shaped a major art collection of Old Masters, Impressionists and Modern works which expanded in the 1970s to include Indian and Southeast Asian art.

During this time, Mr. Simon became an influential force within the Southern California art community. As a trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art, he encouraged the separation of the art and science activities, and was a catalyst in the formation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Simon's two foundations--The Norton Simon Foundation and the Norton Simon Art Foundation--were actively acquiring and displaying his art collections. The Norton Simon Foundation’s first major purchase, in 1964, was the remaining inventory of Duveen Brothers in New York, a collection of Flemish tapestries, Italian marbles, and Old Master paintings.

The Foundation lent most of its artworks in 1965 to the newly built Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Eventually, as Mr. Simon’s holdings exceeded the capacity of that Museum to exhibit them, he developed his own "museum without walls" concept, lending his art collections to museums throughout the world. He retired from corporate life in 1969 to pursue his interests in politics, art, higher education, and medical research.

Involved in educational, cultural and philanthropic activities, Norton Simon served on the University of California Board of Regents, the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Higher Education, the boards of Reed College, the Los Angeles Music Center, the California School of Professional Psychology, and the Institute for Advanced Study. In 1970, Mr. Simon briefly entered the political arena during the California Republican Primary with an unsuccessful bid for the United States Senate.

Norton Simon’s marriage to actress Jennifer Jones in 1971 marked the turning point in the shaping of his collections. With the exception of a few Greek and Egyptian objects, his acquisitions until then were decidedly European. That summer, during the couple’s honeymoon trip to India, Mr. Simon began to explore Indian art. This led to his first purchase of Indian art, a Mughal ivory chess set and, more importantly, to an admiration for South Asian art, which occupied a large part of his collecting interest for the remainder of his life.

By early 1974, Mr. Simon had begun to seek a permanent home for his large collection. He welcomed an overture from the financially strapped Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, and ultimately assumed its leadership. Over the next year, as loan commitments to other museums ended, his artworks traveled to Pasadena. Norton Simon's vast "museum without walls" began to assemble within walls for the first time. When he was stricken in 1984 with the neurological disorder Guillain-Barré Syndrome, Mr. Simon refused to be defeated by the paralyzing illness and continued to oversee the Norton Simon Museum until his death in 1993.

I am not essentially a religious person, but my feeling about a museum is that it can serve as a substitute for a house of worship. It is a place to respect man's creativity and to sense a continuity with the past. It is a place to give us a feeling of the dignity of man and to help us to strive towards our own creativity and fulfillment.
- Norton Simon, 1974

The story of Norton Simon's life as an art collector is recounted in "The Art of Norton Simon", a documentary film by Charles and Davis Guggenheim. The thirty minute documentary screens daily in the Norton Simon Museum Theater. Entrance to the film is free with Museum admission.