Having established herself as a serious presence in the art community of Richmond, Virginia, Eleanora Clare Houston went on to earn a significant reputation as an active suffragette on both the state and national levels. On the occasion of a solo exhibition of her work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1940, museum director Thomas Colt wrote that Houston was “a person of deep spiritual and social consciousness” who “worked fruitfully in the social field as well as in the field of art. Her painting proves the training and practice of years and reflects the deep feelings of one who, with devout soul has labored long and sympathetically for her fellowmen in Virginia.”

Known by her nickname, Nora Houston was the only child of a Richmond physician and his wife, who directed a private school. Precocious, she began taking art lessons around the age of ten and as a teenager joined the Art Club of Richmond. Among her fellow members was Adèle Clark, who would become her intimate friend and longtime partner. Houston studied sculpture with Edward Valentine and in 1905 earned a scholarship to attend the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (earlier known as the Chase School, but now recognized as Parsons School of Design) where William Merritt Chase, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Robert Henri were among her instructors. She then traveled to Paris and studied at the Académie Colarossi before settling in Richmond in 1909, where she opened a studio with Clark and began to teach at the Art Club of Richmond.

Given her academic training, Houston was well prepared to become a successful teacher. A catalogue for the club praised how she “exerts a wholesome influence towards self-reliance, individuality, and originality in the work of her students.” The club offered instruction to both children and adults; at age thirteen, Theresa Pollak became one of Houston and Clark’s pupils. With a generous inheritance from an uncle, Houston retired from teaching in 1928, traveled to Europe, and dedicated herself to painting and social justice.

In her own work, Houston executed portraits, landscapes, and a series devoted to the depiction of early Catholic martyrs from Virginia. Early in her career, her canvases were dark and resembled those of the Ashcan School, but eventually grew brighter and more graceful. Selections from her oeuvre reflect her activism on behalf of African Americans. Her paintings were included in noted national exhibitions, including the Whitney Museum’s 1937 annual exhibition of contemporary American paintings and the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, as well as presentations organized by the Southern States Art League and the Studio Guild of New York City.

The Art Club dissolved during World War I, but Houston and Clark continued to teach at their own studio, christened “Atelier,” which morphed into the Virginia League of Fine Arts and Handicrafts. The League then merged with the Richmond Academy of Sciences and Fine Arts in the early 1930s, at a time when an interest in establishing a permanent museum was on the increase. This effort came to fruition in 1934 with the founding of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. While Clark served as the state director of the Federal Art Project, Houston began, in 1937, to oversee both the mural and easel painting programs of the Works Progress Administration.

Houston became active in the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia and served as secretary of the league’s Richmond chapter from 1914 until 1919. She traveled across the state giving lectures, frequently speaking on city street corners; once she was hit by rocks thrown by an opponent. In pursuing the right to vote for women, Houston and Clark reached out to African American women and engaged them in the effort. They invited local black leaders to their studio, believing they would not be criticized by the community who already considered the pair to be eccentric. After the nineteenth amendment was passed, Houston assisted African American women in registering to vote and helped transport them to the polls. She continued to be politically active with the Virginia League of Women Voters, focusing on her primary concerns of child welfare, education, and interracial cooperation. The national league named her one of twelve delegates to the 1926 International Woman Suffrage Alliance meeting in Paris.

After Houston’s sudden death in 1942, Clark inherited her partner’s collection; thirty years later, Clark gave the paintings to Richmond’s St. Paul’s Catholic Church in the hope that the works would be enjoyed by a wide audience. In 2015, the church transferred ownership to the Nora Houston Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to restore and display the paintings. In 2017, Houston’s activism for women’s rights, social justice, and the arts was acknowledged in a program entitled Virginia Women in History hosted by the Library of Virginia.