Historical Note


Through her writings and photographs, DOROTHY NORMAN advanced the causes she believed in; namely, social activism and artistic expression. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 28, 1905, Norman was the only daughter of Esther and Louis Stecker. She had two brothers, Robert and Jack. Growing up in a well-to-do Jewish family did not keep Norman from becoming a young rebel. She was fascinated with the idea of attending a New England boarding school, but her parents would only allow her to go as far as Washington, D.C. So at the age of 16, while her parents were away in Europe, Norman registered herself at the Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island. After Wheeler, Norman's restless nature accompanied her to college, as she spent one year at Smith and two more at the University of Pennsylvania. Although she was disappointed to be back in Philadelphia, Norman decided to take a course that was offered to Penn students at the Barnes Foundation, which housed the primarily late 19th and early 20th century art collection of Dr. Albert C. Barnes. The course introduced Norman to modern art, and as she later described it, the experience was life-changing. Norman sensed the connection between all forms of modern art and contemporary life, which in turn sparked in her a sense of revolution and social commitment. Such sentiments make her marriage in 1925 to Edward A. Norman seem all the more timely. The couple settled in New York City where Edward became interested in consumers' cooperatives. According to Norman, her husband believed such ventures could revolutionize the world's economy, freeing people from totalitarian government and capitalist control. New York City also provided Dorothy with venues for her social activism. During her first year there, she became a volunteer at the American Civil Liberties Union. Soon after, Norman also joined the Urban League and worked with Margaret Sanger to increase awareness of birth control.

Another encounter to alter Norman's life also occurred in New York City, when in 1927 she met the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who for the past two decades tirelessly promoted photography and modern art to the American public. Norman found a kindred spirit in Stieglitz's conviction of the artist's ability to help society develop and rebuild itself. He became her mentor, and despite their marriages to others, the two also became lovers. When the building that housed Stieglitz's gallery was demolished, Norman convinced him to open another. She was crucial in raising funds and in promoting this new venture, which opened in 1929 as An American Place. It was here that Norman would come to know America's avant-garde painters such as John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, and Stieglitz's wife Georgia O'Keeffe, who by that time began spending half the year in the Southwest. Contemporary writers, such as William Carlos Williams, Lewis Mumford and Hart Crane also frequented the gallery. Many of these artists became Norman's subject in her portrait photographs, noted for their small size and sense of intimacy. She also became known for her interior shots of An American Place and for her photos of New England landscapes and architecture. In her writings, Norman began her most ambitious attempt to combine arts and social action in 1938 with the publication of Twice A Year: A Semi-Annual Journal of Literature, the Arts and Civil Liberties. During its ten-year run, the journal covered issues such as the Spanish Civil War, civil liberties and racism, and Nazi atrocities, along with writings by e.e. cummings, Franz Kafka, and Anaïs Nin, and the photographs of Stieglitz and Ansel Adams. In her column for the New York Post, Norman continued to address the social issues of the day. She also contributed articles, reviews, poems and photographs to various journals and published several books on Stieglitz, John Marin and one on myth, which coincided with an exhibition she organized in 1958. Her meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru in New York City led to a close friendship with the Indian leader as well as her publication of a two-volume collection of his speeches and writings. In 1987 she published a book of her letters to Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi. Norman spent her later years studying religion and philosophy and working to improve the social conditions of India. She died in 1997. Norman had two children, Nancy and Andrew.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art benefitted from a relationship with Norman that spanned almost three decades. In 1968, Norman helped to establish the Alfred Stieglitz Center at the Museum, giving a collection of more than 500 photographs by Stieglitz and others. She continued to donate works, and at the time of her death, the Museum received her entire collection. In regard to her own work, the Museum holds more than 500 photographs, and has made Norman the subject of three exhibitions, held in 1984, 1994 and 1998. The 1984 show examined the works of Norman and Stieglitz produced during their 20-year relationship. The latter shows featured Norman's own work and her personal collection, respectively.

Works Consulted

Abrahams, Edward. Preface to intimate visions: the photographs of Dorothy Norman. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993.

The Getty Museum. Explore Art: Artists, s.v. Norman, Dorothy. 12 Oct. 2006.

Norman, Dorothy, 1905-. Encounters: a memoir. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.

Norman, Dorothy. Interview by William McNaught. Oral history transcript for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 31 May 1979. Online 12 Oct. 2006.