The classics never go out of style. Just ask Paul McCartney’s accountant. And those classics come in all styles and forms. Take art, for example. Philadelphia lawyer and art collector John G. Johnson fell in love with the Old Masters and you can’t get much more classic than that. Johnson collected the Old Masters and then some. He acquired everything from Renaissance masterpieces to impressionist classics. And now through February, art lovers can visit a special exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art dedicated to the collection, which is celebrating its centennial. I recently got a peek at the splendid exhibition as part of the museum’s members’ preview.
Meet John G. Johnson
Born in 1841, Johnson was a born and bred Philadelphian. He briefly served in the Union Army during the Civil War but it was his career as a lawyer that brought him success. Johnson worked as a corporate lawyer until his death in 1917. He represented such big names as J. P. Morgan & Company, American Tobacco Company, and US Steel Corporation. He argued more than 100 cases before the United States Supreme Court. Johnson’s said to have declined offers to become a Supreme Court Justice from Presidents Garfield and Cleveland. And he turned down President McKinley’s offer to be Attorney General.
The John G. Johnson Collection
But it was art that seemed to really make Johnson’s heart tick. Like Albert C. Barnes, a fellow Philadelphia art collector who followed in his footsteps and whose collection makes up the nearby museum the Barnes Foundation, Johnson collected the art that spoke to him. In addition to traditional and classical works, he acquired art from contemporary artists such as Claude Monet, John Singer Sargent, and James Whistler. The styles and tastes of the 1279 paintings, 51 sculptures, and over 100 additional items that he eventually left behind vary widely.
When Johnson died in 1917 he willed his massive collection to the city of Philadelphia. In 1933, the collection was moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it was displayed as a separate collection, per an agreement with the Johnson Trust. In the 1980s the museum received approval to integrate the works into the permanent collection on display.
Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Old Masters Now
Visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art may already be familiar with some of the most impressive pieces of the Johnson Collection. At times, while viewing Old Masters Now, it feels as though large portions of the museum’s permanent collection are simply in a new location. They are now temporarily in the exhibition space as opposed to the galleries. But there are differences to seeing the collection in this exhibition as opposed to integrated into the permanent collection. Viewing, in context, only the works of the collection together is one of them.
Favorites like the panels of Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion Diptych and Jan van Eyck’s Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata (which is impossibly detailed and proves good things do come in small packages) are on display. Normally these works have elaborate presentations in the galleries. van Eyck’s is accompanied by a touchscreen computer allowing visitors to get a more detailed look; van der Weyden’s is the focal point of its gallery with stools for visitors to ponder the religious art. But in this exhibition’s context, all those bells and whistles are no longer there. The art is the focus. No more. No less.
Old Masters New
But the museum’s curatorial and conservation staff have been working hard in the lead up to this exhibition. Titan’s Portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto has been cleaned, restored, and studied. Researchers have found with Titan’s work that the color has changed over time, meaning that Archinto’s vestments no longer suggest he was a cardinal, as once thought, but an archbishop. With this exhibition, they’re able to share new, previously unknown details. There’s an entire section dedicated to highlighting the work that is going on behind the scenes and that we, as museum visitors, are seemingly oblivious to.
Old Masters Now is an exhibition you will not want to miss. Whether you’re already familiar with the Johnson Collection or simply a fan of classic art, there’s something to see. The quality is unparalleled and each piece will grab and hold your attention.
Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from November 3, 2017 through February 19, 2018.