‘Old Mas­ters Now’

Fresh take of­fered on fam­liar, not-so-fa­mil­iar art­work in Philly collection

The Review - - News - By Brian Binga­man bbinga­man@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @bri­an­binga­man on Twit­ter

Philadel­phia lawyer John G. John­son put a great deal of thought into a legacy to be en­joyed by fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

A hun­dred years af­ter he passed away, John­son’s collection of mas­ter­pieces by Monet, Manet and im­por­tant painters from the Renaissance, are on view at the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art in the ex­hi­bi­tion “Old Mas­ters Now: Cel­e­brat­ing the John­son Collection.” In a press re­lease, the­mu­seum called it “one of the finest col­lec­tions of Euro­pean art ever to have been formed in the United States by a pri­vate col­lec­tor.”

He sounds like Al­bert Barnes.

John Graver John­son was born in 1841 in Chest­nut Hill, be­fore it be­came a part of Philadel­phia. Dur­ing his law ca­reer, his clients in­cluded J.P. Mor­gan, U.S. Steel, play­ers on the 1901 Philadel­phia Phillies team, and Alexan­der Cas­satt, the brother of artist Mary Steven­son Cas­satt.

He re­port­edly de­clined two Supreme Court nom­i­na­tions and an­other for U.S. at­tor­ney gen­eral.

John­son qui­etly ac­quired works of art, that still spark schol­arly dis­cus­sion to­day. In 1892 he pub­lished a cat­a­logue of his collection, which at that time in­cluded 281 paint­ings.

In 1895 John­son was ap­pointed to Philadel­phia’s Fair­mount Art Com­mis­sion, where he over­saw a public collection of paint­ings and con­trib­uted 53 paint­ings from his per­sonal collection to it. Un­der his leadership, the com­mis­sion pur­chased James McNeill Whistler’s “Ar­range­ment in Black” and Henry Os­sawa Tan­ner’s “An­nun­ci­a­tion,” the first work by an African-Amer­i­can artist to en­ter an Amer­i­can public collection.

When he died in 1917, John­son be­queathed his collection — 1,279 paint­ings, 51 sculp­tures and more than 100 other ob­jects — to the City of Philadel­phia. In his will, he stated: “I have lived my life in this city. I want the collection to have its home here.” The will also stip­u­lated that his South Broad Street house be opened as a public gallery. Like Barnes, John­son had ideas all his own about how art should be dis­played.

How­ever, In 1933 the John­son Collection was moved tem­po­rar­ily to the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art due to a fund­ing cri­sis caused by the Great De­pres­sion, as well as a de­ter­mi­na­tion that the John­son house was not a safe place for the collection. In 1958 a for­mal agree­ment was made con­cern­ing stor­age and dis­play at the Art Mu­seum. John­son’s art­was ex­hib­ited as a sep­a­rate collection within the mu­seum for more than 50 years, then in­te­grated into the per­ma­nent collection in the late 1980s.

What all will I see?

There’s a sec­tion de- voted to Dutch mas­ter Hierony­mus Bosch, and Rem­brandt’s “Head of Christ,” plus works by lead­ing Amer­i­can and French artists of John­son’s time — Winslow Homer, John Singer Sar­gent, Edgar De­gas, Camille Pis­sarro and a mar­ble by Au­guste Rodin.

Also among the high­lights is Ti­tian’s “Por­trait of Arch­bishop Filippo Arch­into,” which is on dis­play for the first time af­ter a two-year con­ser­va­tion project.

“De­scent fromthe Cross,” painted by the Nether­lan­dish artist Joos van Cleve around 1520, has un­der­gone a year-long con­ser­va­tion treat­ment and will be on view for the first time in 30 years.

You’ll dis­cover that the skele­ton in Dutch mas­ter Ju­dith Leyster’s work “The Last Drop (The Gay Cav­a­lier)” had been painted over. Dat­ing to about 1629, it de­picts a scene of two men ap­proach­ing the end of a night of drink­ing. The skele­ton was a sym­bolic warn­ing to the rev­el­ers that they should change their ways.

And that’s only some of what’s on view. Don’t for­get to ex­plore the­mu­seum’s Euro­pean Gal­leries, where other works from the John­son Collection are in­stalled.

“Old Mas­ters Now” of­fers a be­hind-the-scenes look at the col­lab­o­ra­tive work of the Art Mu­seum’s curators and con­ser­va­tors, go­ing on since the early ‘30s.

The ex­hibit ex­plores burn­ing ques­tions re­gard­ing au­then­tic­ity and deter­min­ing an artist’s in­tent be­hind art created cen­turies ago.

How long do I have to see it?

Till Feb. 19. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tues­days through Sun­days, till 8:45 p.m. Wednesdays and Fri­days.

On Feb. 1 a public dig­i­tal cat­a­logue on the collection — a first of its kind for the Art Mu­seum — will be launched at www.phil­a­mu­seum.org/ex­hi­bi­tions/864. html?page=3& pubID=jgj. It will be avail­able for free.

What’s it cost to get into the Art Mu­seum?

$20, $18 for se­niors 65+, $14 for stu­dents and youths 13-18, free to chil­dren 12 and un­der and mem­bers. Pay-what-you-wish ad­mis­sion is in ef­fect the first Sun­day of the month and on Wednesdays from 5 to 8:45 p.m.

Where do I go to start plan­ning my visit?

There’s a lot of in­for­ma­tion at www.phil­a­mu­seum.org, in­clud­ing how to get there. You can also call (215) 763-8100 or e-mail vis­i­torser­vices@phil­a­mu­seum.org.


“Saint Ni­cholas of To­lentino Sav­ing a Ship­wreck,” a 1457 tem­pera and gold on panel, with ver­ti­cal grain, by Ital­ian Gio­vanni di Paolo, in the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art’s John G. John­son Collection.


“The Bat­tle of the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama,” an 1864paint­ing by Édouard Manet in the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art’s John G. John­son Collection.


“Head of Christ” by Rem­brandt is in the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art’s John G. John­son Collection.

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