First noted for his portraits, marine views, and East Coast landscapes, Norton Bush became best known for his tropical views of Central and South America. He studied in New York City with the Hudson River school painter Jasper Cropsey and received criticism from another Hudson River school painter, Frederic Edwin Church. Like many who worked in the Hudson River school style, Bush also sought to inspire viewers with an expansive view of nature that dwarfed the relative influence and position of man. He first became interested in painting exotic locales after traveling through the jungles of Nicaragua in 1853, en route from New York to San Francisco. It was the same year that Frederic Church made his first trip to South America, and the two men would follow similar paths—one in the East, the other in the West—in the painting of tropical landscapes.
Once in San Francisco, Bush worked on commissioned landscape scenes, often painting in the Sierra Nevada. However, it was with his tropical scenes—called “tropicals”—that he found success. He began receiving commissions from San Francisco businessmen, and he returned to Central America in 1868, sponsored by art patron and banker William C. Ralston. He exhibited a work from that trip at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco, and such works secured his reputation throughout his career. During the period from 1869 to 1875, he made additional trips to the tropics. Bush was a member of the San Francisco Art Association, serving as director from 1878 to 1880. In 1893, he was appointed art director for the California section of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. However, this effort was overly taxing on his health, and he had a fatal heart attack in Oakland on April 24, 1894.
His paintings are now featured in the Oakland Museum of California, the Parrish Art Museum in New York, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, and the California Historical Society.