John Graver Johnson was a distinguished presence in Philadelphia. A prominent lawyer, Johnson was also a passionate and dedicated collector of art. On the centennial of his death in 2017, the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened an exhibit celebrating his collection and legacy. Titled Old Masters Now, the exhibition brings together highlights of the nearly 1,500 works he amassed over his 80 year life, and offers a glimpse into the care and scholarship that goes into maintaining a collection of this size.
Born in 1841 in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, Johnson first attended Central High School and later studied law at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1895 he was appointed to the Fairmount Art Commission, which oversaw the acquisition of the Wilstach Collection, now housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While part of the Commission, Johnson purchased Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Annunciation,” which became the first work by an African American artist to be included in a public collection in the country. In 1910, he was made a Trustee on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Johnson’s law career was colorful and far-reaching; he represented J.P. Morgan and Standard Oil, argued cases in front of the Supreme Court, settled a contract dispute as counsel for the Philadelphia Phillies, and was rumored to have been offered the position of Attorney General by President McKinley. He was the personal attorney for Alexander Cassatt, brother to artist Mary Cassatt, whose work Johnson also collected.
“Art gives us real delight only when the eye derives pleasure from what is really worthy.” – John G. Johnson
“The Moorish Chief,” Eduard Charlemont (Austrian, 1848 – 1906)
Privately, Johnson traveled across Europe extensively, collecting works by Dutch masters, including Jan Steen and Rembrandt, as well as French artists of the time—Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas, for example. Johnson often purchased directly from the artists themselves, before work by the Impressionists had gained the public reverence and critical acclaim they would come to achieve. Johnson’s collection “is distinguished by its quality, rarity, and diversity in European art,” said the Museum.
In his 1912 will, filed just five years before his death, Johnson wrote, “I have lived my life in this city. I want the collection to have its home here.” His house on south Broad street became the Johnson Gallery in 1923, displaying 300 works from his collection. It wasn’t until 1934, due to the Great Depression, that the entirety of his collection was moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and even then the move was intended to be temporary. The agreement was revised in 1958 and again in 1989, giving the collection—which officially totals 1,279 paintings, 51 sculptures, and 100 other objects—a permanent home at the Museum.
“Rhetoricians at a Window,” Jan Steen (Dutch 1626 – 1679)
Still Life with a Ham and a Roemer, Wilem Claesz (Dutch 1594-1680)
The Grand Canal with San Simeone Piccolo and Santa Lucia, Francesco Guardi, (Italian, 1712 – 1793)
The exhibition, which runs through February 19th, includes forensic backgrounds on several of the works on display, showing how researches and curators work to preserve the art and make startling discoveries along the way.