Recognized as the first professional landscape painter in San Francisco, Norton Bush is best known for his lush, evocative renderings of tropical scenery. Like his counterparts in the East, notably Frederic Church and Martin Johnson Heade, Bush was an artist-explorer, fascinated by the luxuriant beauty of Central and South America. His detailed, crisply painted views of such exotic locales as Peru, Panama, Chile, and Nicaragua brought him widespread patronage, as well as critical acclaim, and established his reputation as California's premier painter of the tropics.
A native of Rochester, New York, Bush began his artistic training under James Harris, a local landscape painter. In 1850 he moved to New York City, where he continued his studies under Jasper F. Cropsey, a prominent member of the Hudson River School.
Bush had his first contact with tropical scenery in 1853, when he travelled to California by way of Nicaragua. One year later, he exhibited a selection of views of Central America in San Francisco, and proceeded to make tropical landscape painting his specialty.
Bush painted on a part-time basis until the mid-1860s. However, after establishing a studio in the Mercantile Library Building in the late 1860s, he was able to devote all of his time to painting. He subsequently attracted many important patrons, all of whom were drawn to the colorful, luminous quality of his work. His clientele included numerous silver speculators, as well as railroad magnates such as Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker. In 1868, the banker and collector William C. Ralston provided the funds which enabled Bush to make a second trip to Central America.
Bush spent 1871-1872 in New York, where he exhibited his work at the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design. In addition to "tropicals," he also widened his repertoire of subjects to include views of California and New England.
In 1875, Bush returned to South America, commissioned by John G. Meiggs, a San Francisco businessman, to paint a series of views of the country around Meiggs's mining and railroad operations in Peru, Chile, and Equador. Later, back in San Francisco, Bush produced over fifty paintings based on his sketches from the trip. Many of his renditions of Mount Chimborazo, El Miste and other major sites were eventually sent to Meiggs' home in London.
During the late 1870s or early 1880s, Bush moved to Sacramento, where he continued to paint as well as teach. In 1884 and 1885 he took several sketching trips throughout Northern California. Highly respected by his peers, Bush later served as art director for the California section of the Chicago World's Fair (1893).
An important figure in the art life of San Francisco, Bush was a member, and at one time director, of the San Francisco Art Association. He also belonged to San Francisco's Bric-a-Brac Club, and was a frequent contributor to the exhibitions held in conjunction with the state fairs in Sacramento.
Norton Bush died in Oakland in 1894. Representative examples of his work can be found in many important public and private collections, including the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, the Oakland Museum, and the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.
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