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Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection
November 3, 2017 - February 19, 2018
Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection
November 3, 2017 - February 19, 2018
Italian Renaissance painters. Dutch masters. French Impressionists.

In 1917 John G. Johnson, the most famous lawyer of his day, left his astonishing trove of European art to the city of Philadelphia. One hundred years later, we’re taking a new look at one of this country’s most remarkable collections. Encounter treasures by the likes of Botticelli, Bosch, Titian, Rembrandt, and Monet—and see how we keep making new discoveries about the collection.

Far from being a static group of objects, the Johnson Collection is subject to constant care, study, and scrutiny. What does it mean to tend to and learn from an art collection of this magnitude and significance? What discoveries and challenges do we encounter day in, day out?

In this exhibition, get a behind-the-scenes look at a living, breathing collection and experience first-hand how our understanding and appreciation of these works have evolved over the years.

Early Italian and Netherlandish Paintings

The oldest works in the Johnson Collection, these early Italian and Netherlandish paintings have led extremely complex lives. Many of them once adorned churches, monasteries, or homes but were cut apart and removed, later winning the attention of the appreciative and artful eye of John G. Johnson. Today curators, conservators, and scholars diligently reconstruct their histories to understand their original appearance and context and identify their talented makers.

The Dutch Golden Age

Johnson’s collection of Dutch paintings is among the largest in the world and is especially rich in works by artists like Jan Steen and Jacob van Ruisdael. Research on the art of this period often seeks to determine meaning. We find ourselves asking questions like: Is this painting a depiction of everyday life or a fabricated scene? Is this still life a careful selection of objects loaded with symbolism or a beautiful crafted composition meant to please the eye?

Impressionism and Beyond

Johnson began collecting in the 1880s by acquiring art of his time. This included French Impressionist paintings and other works brimming with freshness and immediacy. Summer travel through Europe introduced him to a broad range of artists and he bought widely. He didn’t stick to just famous names or movements but rather sought to build a comprehensive collection of what he regarded as modern painting.

Art Collector John G. Johnson

In the house on South Broad Street he lives alone with his pictures. And his pictures are everywhere. . . . They cover every available inch of wall space. . . . One priceless painting adorns the footboard of a bed, and the butler’s pantry houses a Van Dyck. New York Times, June 21, 1914

The New York Times described John G. Johnson as “the greatest lawyer in the English-speaking world.” In his free time, he also happened to amass one of the greatest collections of European art in the country. On his death in 1917, he left the collection of nearly 1,500 works to his hometown of Philadelphia so that it could be enjoyed by local citizens, visitors, and art lovers around the world. Today, the Johnson Collection forms a cornerstone of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s galleries.

Browse the Johnson Collection >>


This exhibition has been made possible by The Annenberg Foundation Fund for Major Exhibitions, The Robert Montgomery Scott Endowment for Exhibitions, The Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Kowitz Family Foundation, Friends of Heritage Preservation, Lawrence H. and Julie C. Berger, The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Exhibition Fund, The Gloria and Jack Drosdick Fund for Special Exhibitions, The Harriet and Ronald Lassin Fund for Special Exhibitions, The Robert Lehman Foundation, Lyn M. Ross, Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP, and Joan F. Thalheimer.

Support for the accompanying digital publication has been provided by Lois G. and Julian A. Brodsky, Martha Hamilton Morris and I. Wistar Morris III, an anonymous donor, and other generous individuals.


Jennifer Thompson, The Gloria and Jack Drosdick Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, and Curator of the John G. Johnson Collection; with Christopher Atkins, The Agnes and Jack Mulroney Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, and Manager of Curatorial Digital Programs and Initiatives; Teresa Lignelli, The Aronson Senior Conservator of Paintings; and Mark S. Tucker, The Neubauer Family Director of Conservation


Dorrance Special Exhibition Galleries, first floor

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