Treasures from the Vault: Norah Hamilton

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

There has been much attention given to members of Fort Wayne’s extraordinary Montgomery and Gertrude Hamilton family. Starting in 1870 through the 1920s, American women began pursuing careers outside of their assumed domestic roles, and developed a public voice. This was the first generation of women who went to college, and many were pioneers in their professions and in social reform. The women of the Hamilton family were no exception. The oldest daughter, Edith (1867-1963), was a renowned writer, authoring the books The Greek Way and Mythology. Alice (1869-1970) was in the field of industrial toxicology, wrote the first American textbook on industrial poisons, and became the first woman appointed to Harvard University’s faculty. Margaret (1871-1969) became headmistress for Bryn Mawr School, a college preparatory school for women and Norah (1873-1945) was the accomplished artist in the family. The siblings also included one brother, Arthur “Quint” (1886-1967), who earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and taught romance languages at the University of Illinois.  

There is little documentation to help paint a portrait of Norah, the youngest daughter.  What little information we can gather is primarily from her sister, Alice. In her autobiography, Alice described her: “Norah was as vivid and intense as Margaret was steady—with her it was rapture or tragedy, and so of course she was terribly vulnerable to the sort of teasing and baiting that children love to inflict when they find an easy victim.” i   

The Hamilton children’s earliest education was not in the public schools, but largely through independent study. Alice confessed, “Edith and Margaret were born readers. Norah and I were not, but family pressure made us too into bookworms finally; and since we saw so little of any children outside our own family, the people we met in books became real to us.” ii The sisters attended Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, which provided women with access to a well-rounded education in the sciences and mathematics as well as languages and English.   

A woman leans her head on her hand as she reads a book spread before her on a table. Next to her are two others, also reading. The table includes a stack of books in the left corner. The people are sketchily drawn.
Norah Hamilton, American, 1873-1945. Untitled. Lithograph, n.d. James Hamilton Collection, 1965.105.16. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In addition to attending the Fort Wayne Art School, Norah took classes at the Art Students League in New York under William Merritt Chase, Kenyon Cox, and Robert Henri. During her studies there, Norah described to her cousin Jessie in 1893 how “The men students are the most tiresome things—they try so desperately hard to be Bohemian and artistic—and in the life class always shout and sing and blow crazy musical instruments.” iii 

In the spring of 1895, Norah learned of Jane Addams’ speaking engagement at the Methodist Church in Fort Wayne. Norah, Alice, and their cousin Agnes all attended. Addams was already famous for founding Hull-House, a settlement house serving Chicago’s impoverished immigrant and working-class in the surrounding neighborhoods through educational programs and social services. Alice and Agnes resolved to be involved with settlement houses; Alice found a home with Hull-House for 22 years, and Agnes went to Lighthouse in Philadelphia.   

Norah spent two years in Europe ca. 1897-99 while she was in her mid-twenties. She studied under James Abbott McNeill Whistler, which may have been a catalyst for her work in printmaking. At that time, Whistler was known for his paintings and etchings, but was also working in lithography from 1887-1896. While in Lucerne in October 1899, she suffered a breakdown and convalesced in hospitals in Zurich. In the fall of 1900 she shared an apartment with Alice, who introduced her to Hull-House.   

Hull-House offered classes in etching, linocut, and lithography through their “Reproduction Club.” iv Addams spoke of a pile of lithography stones and press in their arts studio. Norah’s artistic experiences in Europe, coupled with the availability of equipment at Hull-House, probably contributed to her enthusiasm for etching and lithography over painting. She became Director of Children’s Art Program in 1921.   

A landscape shows trees edging a road or boardwalk. In the background, more trees, without leaves, obscure a grand house.
Norah Hamilton, American, 1873-1945. Untitled. Etching, n.d. James Hamilton Collection, 1965.105.3. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Norah was an active member of the Chicago Society of Etchers that was founded in 1910 to encourage the appreciation of the medium. In January 1911, she was represented with two etchings in An Exhibition of American Etchings at the Art Institute of Chicago with the works The path in the woods and The sweat-shop workers, perhaps revealing her range of subjects. The latter was cited in a review of the exhibition in March in The International Studio. In April 1912, she was included in an exhibition of American etchers at the City Art Museum in St. Louis.   

Norah’s etching of The Chicago Bridge is a bit reminiscent of Charles Meryon’s L’arche du Pont Notre Dame (1850). Meryon was a prolific printmaker in the 19th century and lovingly documented different parts of a quickly changing Paris.   

An etching of the arch by the Notre Dame bridge. The city is off in the distance, and in the front is the river Seine with boatmen. They are working on the bridge, and the right corner of the work shows a man using rope to scale the side of the bridge. In the back is scaffolding.
Charles Meryon, French, 1821-1868. L’arche du Pont Notre Dame. Etching, 1850. Anonymous Gift, 1978.14. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Like the French printmaker, Hamilton depicts the underside of the bridge that provided her with the opportunity to focus on the play of light and shadow. She also captured the movement from the ripples in the water. The artist left a thin layer of ink on the etched plate, to give her printed image a warm-brown, atmospheric tone. America’s big cities, like Meryon’s 19th century Paris, were transforming with the rise of skyscrapers, technology, industry, and resulting social changes. Her artwork depicts two poles, from picturesque views, such as this etching, to images of urban life. 

An etching of the Chicago bridge shows the underneath of it, peeking through is the city. Much attention is given to the movement of the water, and a boat is in the righthand corner.
Norah Hamilton, American, 1873-1945. The Chicago Bridge. Etching, n.d. James Hamilton Collection, 1965.105.15. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Art Students League teacher Robert Henri and the artists associated with the Ash Can School and the Eight were drawn to the teeming energy of city living. Their unorthodox works focused on unidealized views of the tenements, slums, and daily life. Several of the prints in the museum’s collection are Norah’s observations of families and individuals on the city streets.   

Three men sit on a bench, wearing top hats, coats, and shoes. They each have a newspaper.
Norah Hamilton, American, 1873-1945. Bryant Park, New York, Lithograph, n.d. Gift of the Franklin B. Mead Memorial Collection, 1965.60. Photo by FWMoA.

Working with Hull-House’s neighboring immigrant community surely gave Norah and her sister greater insight into their personal experiences. Alice commented, “I cannot remember when I began to see the working world through the workers’ eyes.” v  Norah used quick, descriptive strokes in her depiction of workers gathered for a union meeting. She filled the entire composition with serious faces, adding to the intensity of the scene. This image was among the illustrations she created for her sister’s book, Exploring the Dangerous Trades: An Autobiography of Alice Hamilton, M.D. 

Faces of women at a union meeting. Though sketchily drawn, each woman is individualized with their own features and expressions in the front. Just as if we were in the crowd, the women in the back are less personalized.
Norah Hamilton, American, 1873-1945. Working Women at a Union Meeting. Lithograph, ca. 1943. Gift of the Franklin B. Mead Memorial Collection, 1965.64. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In April 1940, Norah accompanied Alice to Joplin, Missouri. Alice was invited to reassess the past problem of silicosis, a lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust containing silica, a potential occupational hazard with zinc and lead mining. Alice’s work led to implementing safety standards and protection of laborers.   

A bleak, featureless landscape showing the working conditions at a mine. The houses are askance, and there are no people in sight.
Norah Hamilton, American, 1873-1945. Concentrating Mill and Heaps of Tailings in Tri-State Region. Lithograph, ca. 1943. James Hamilton Collection, 1965.105.6. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Concentrating Mill and Heaps of Tailings in Tri-State Region was included in Alice’s book. Norah rendered a largely bleak, featureless landscape. There is no modeling to give some color to the view. Her countryside has the feeling of a wasteland, a far cry from the lush, tree-lined landscapes in her etchings. Alice recalled, “Norah went with me to sketch the tragic mutilated country. . . I found the same abomination of desolation in the countryside as I had seen twenty-seven years before.” vi  Tailings are the waste product from mining, and runoff can lead to surface and groundwater contamination.   

Norah was a creator of book plate designs and provided the illustrations for Jane Addams’ book, Twenty Years at Hull-House with Autobiographical Notes (1910), and Alice’s Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1943). She also orchestrated the printing of the Hull-House publication Pottery from the Hull-House.  She lived in Greenwich Village and Europe in the late 1930s.   

To view more of Norah Hamilton’s works, visit Northern Illinois University’s Digital Library.


[i] Alice Hamilton, Exploring the Dangerous Trades: The Autobiography of Alice Hamilton, M.D. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1943), p. 20.

[ii] Ibid., p. 19.

[iii] Laura R. Prieto, At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 156.

[iv] Hull-House Year Book 1906-1907, p. 11, https://digital.janeaddams.ramapo.edu/items/show/4797, accessed October 2, 2020.

[v] Ibid., p. 80. [1] Ibid., p. 147.

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