2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway,
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection
November 3, 2017 - February 19, 2018
Art gives us real delight only when the eye derives pleasure from what is really worthy. (John G. Johnson, from his art and travel memoir, Sight-Seeing in Berlin and Holland among Pictures, 1892.)
Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Saving a Shipwreck, 1457. Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia), Italian (active Siena), first documented 1417, died 1482. Tempera and gold on panel with vertical grain, 20 1/2 x 16 5/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.
This fall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection, a major exhibition focusing on one of the finest collections of European art ever to have been formed in the United States by a private collector. The exhibition marks the centenary of the remarkable bequest of John Graver Johnson—a distinguished corporate lawyer of his day and one of its most adventurous art collectors—to the city of Philadelphia in 1917. It also coincides with the celebration of the centennial of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The exhibition will include masterpieces by key figures of the Renaissance such as Botticelli, Bosch, and Titian; important seventeenth-century Dutch paintings by Rembrandt, Jan Steen, and others; and works by American and French masters of Johnson’s own time, most notably Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Édouard Manet and Claude Monet. Old Masters Now will also provide a behind-the-scenes look at the collaborative work of the Museum’s curators and conservators who have worked with the collection since it was entrusted to the Museum’s care in the early 1930s. The exhibition will explore a host of fascinating questions ranging from attribution to authenticity and illuminate the detective work and problem-solving skills that are brought to bear when specialists reevaluate the original meaning and intent of works created centuries ago.
Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and CEO said, “Over time our appreciation of Johnson’s extraordinary gift continues to grow, and yet it remains a source of endless fascination with many discoveries still to be made. We are delighted to open a window onto our work, offering visitors a fresh look at the process of scholarship and conservation that we bring to the care of our collection and an insight into the questions, puzzles, and mysteries that continue to occupy our staff.”
The exhibition will open with a gallery dedicated to Johnson himself, providing a picture of one of Philadelphia’s most prominent leaders during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A timeline will trace key moments in his colorful legal career, highlighting important cases and invitations he was reported to have received from President Garfield and President Cleveland to be nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court, and another from President McKinley to serve as his Attorney General, all of which Johnson declined. It notes that in 1901, he represented his hometown baseball team, the Phillies (then known as the Philadelphia Ball Club), when players sought to break their contract to play for another team. This section will also explore his decades-long formation of an art collection, from his early acquisitions of contemporary art, such as Mary Cassatt’s On the Balcony, to paintings that he acquired the day before he died. Archival material, travel albums, and large-scale photographs of the interiors of Johnson’s houses at 426 and 506 South Broad Street will reveal the strikingly idiosyncratic way in which he displayed and lived with his collection.
Eight paintings in the exhibition will illustrate some of the fascinating breakthroughs in understanding that have emerged from curators’ and conservators’ work researching and caring for the collection over time. Among them is Rogier van der Weyden’s The Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, from around 1460. This pair of wood panels long puzzled scholars, who were uncertain whether they were created as part of an altarpiece or as an independent work. A conservator’s close technical study eventually led to the realization that they had served as shutters that closed over what was likely one of the largest altarpieces made during the Renaissance in northern Europe, its existence is known only through the Johnson Collection paintings and two others discovered in 2012.
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