The story of Representative Mary Norton’s portrait commemorating her stint as “Mayor of Washington” reflects Norton’s guiding ethos throughout her career. Commissioned by a group of notables from the District of Columbia, and painted by local artist Elaine Hartley, the Norton portrait was executed in a spirit of community in appreciation, and in support of a fellow professional woman.
Mary Norton served as chairman for the House Committee on the District of Columbia from 1931 to 1937. At the time, the federal government administered Washington, DC, and as chair of the committee, she was essentially the city’s mayor. An average of 250 bills and petitions related to city management crossed her desk weekly. As the Washington Post opined, “she has proven herself an invaluable advocate for the Capital City’s interests in a body where such considerations are too often given only perfunctory attention.” Norton did indeed take the responsibility seriously. During her chairmanship, she made improvements to housing, built a tuberculosis hospital, and brought Children’s Hospital up to code. Further, Norton managed the long-sought merger of street railway companies, improving the system’s efficiency, and secured Public Works Administration funds for a sewage disposal plant. She also put forth great effort to rid Congress of the need for the role she excelled in: home rule for the District was her ultimate goal, and she stated “suffrage will not be universal until the District of Columbia is included in it.”
In 1935, in the midst of this flurry of civic improvement, a young artist from the Corcoran School asked Norton to sit for a portrait. Artist Elaine Hartley Levine—Elaine Hartley, professionally, Mrs. Levine, in private life—was a local; her father worked for years at the Department of Agriculture. Though she was just embarking on her career, and news reports commented frequently on her youthful appearance, Hartley was already married with two children, and had won first prize for portraits at the 1934 annual Corcoran School Art Contest. The ever-supportive Norton agreed to pose, thinking “she was competing for another [prize] and I thought if she had a subject somewhat well-known in Washington, it would help.” Hartley worked quickly—she was known for her ability to complete a portrait with as few as two sittings—and chose to depict Norton at work behind a desk, her gaze directed towards the viewer.
At the official unveiling of the portrait, Norton told the tale of how she realized only later that “some of [her] good friends got together and decided that the District Committee room was the proper place for the portrait.”However, in the spirit of supporting the D.C. community, Hartley’s portrait first went on view to the public. On June 4, 1935, a tea was held at the “Little Theater” in Jelleff’s, a retailer of women’s apparel at 1214-1220 F St NW, with city officials, friends of Norton, and the artist in attendance. Tea was served by “Mrs. William King, wife of Senator King.” Eleanor M. Patterson, publisher of the Washington Herald, presented the portrait on behalf of the group that organized the commission. Norton’s portrait remained on view downtown for two weeks before it came to the House for its official unveiling as a committee chairman portrait.
Although the District of Columbia Committee was not glamorous, Norton was reluctant to leave it. In 1937, however, she was offered the chairmanship of the House Committee on Labor. Norton wanted to support women’s involvement in public life in any way she could. As she promoted Hartley in posing for her, Norton felt accepting advancement to a more prestigious chairmanship was part of her duty to all women. So she made her move.
While Norton served as chairman for the House Committee on Labor, Elaine Hartley Levine continued painting, and raised her family in Arlington, Virginia. Into the 1950s, she exhibited with local art associations— including the Society of Artists at the Corcoran Gallery and the Women’s City Club— and she taught painting. While she never rose to great prominence, continuing her painting career as a mother marked Hartley as a woman ahead of her time and after Norton’s own heart.
Sources: Washington Herald, 5 June 1935; Washington Post, 17 June 1937.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the election and swearing-in of the first woman in Congress, we will publish a series of blog posts about the early women Members and the changing role of women in the institution. Check back each month through 2017 to see the latest posts.