Thursday, November 2, 2017

Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection

Philadelphia Museum of Art

November 3, 2017 –February 19, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is an exciting and important exhibition - for unexpected reasons. 

This exhibition is much more than a thoughtful reexamination of great masterpieces collected over a century ago. Old Masters Now presents a living collection, rich in new insights and revelations, asserting its cultural importance in ways that its first owner never could have expected.

The Johnson Collection occupies a special place in Philadelphia's cultural history. John G. Johnson is certainly not as famous an art collector as the controversial Dr. Albert Barnes. But in many ways, he was just as daring and adventurous in acquiring major works of art. Indeed, Johnson's choices often confound our stereotypes of Gilded Age art collectors. 

John Graver Johnson (1841–1917) was born in Chestnut Hill, then a small town outside Philadelphia. The son of a blacksmith, Johnson graduated from the city's prestigious Central High School and the University of Pennsylvania. Incredibly, a childhood photo of him survives from the 1840's, showing the sharp, perceptive eyes of a "Philadelphia lawyer" - years before he became one.

John G. Johnson: Boy and Man

Johnson was the greatest corporate lawyer of post-Civil War America. Although he only served briefly in the Pennsylvania Militia during the Civil War, it should not be forgotten that Johnson was a member of a generation that had passed through the "fire" of America's most tragic era. 

Johnson was a charter member - through hard work, rather than inheritance - of the American elite. But he knew the meaning of "nobless oblige," of giving back to the community that had nurtured him.  In Johnson's case, this was Philadelphia.

"I have lived my life in this City," Johnson stated in his will. "I want the collection to have its home here.” 

Johnson's collection - 1,279 paintings, 51 sculptures and  over 100 objects in other media - is the keystone of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View showing photo of John G. Johnson's home

When you enter the exhibition galleries, huge mural-size photos of Johnson's splendid homes on S. Broad Street are on display. For a moment or two, you can imagine yourself entering these opulent Edwardian-era rooms. 

Fantasy should not edge out reality, however. My wife, Anne, noted that the second interior photo, taken in 1936 long after Johnson's death in 1917, is stacked floor-to-ceiling with framed paintings. Significantly, it shows the escalating collection after Johnson's wife, Ida, died in 1908. 

     Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit,          Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection

The exhibit galleries, in contrast, display a significant number of Johnson's treasures in a spacious, almost contemplative atmosphere. In a nod to historical authenticity, one wall of the exhibit gallery is hung in the "stacked" manner of Johnson's home. 

I did not linger very long in front of this vintage display. There are so many great masterpieces in the exhibit, commanding our attention. 

Callisto Piazza, Musical Group, c.1520's

I've been looking at many of these "Old Masters" in the Johnson collection for decades now. For many years, these were grouped together in a separate gallery, by the terms of Johnson's will. He actually stipulated that they be kept in his Broad Street mansion, but his executors wisely ignored his wishes and brought them to the much safer environment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Seeing the Johnson Collection masterpieces in this brilliantly curated exhibition is a revelation. I realize that, for all the times I have looked, I have never really "seen" many of them as Johnson did. One gets the sense that Johnson's art collection became a way for him to channel his love, after the great personal loss of his wife's death, to future generations.

When it came to his day job, Johnson was a hard-eyed realist. Johnson twice refused appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. He did not want to exchange the $100,000 per year he made representing J.P Morgan, the Rockefeller family and the Sugar Trust for a paltry Supreme Court salary of $8,000. 

At the same time that he made all that money, Johnson also served on Philadelphia's Fairmount Park Commission which oversaw the city art collection. It was upon his recommendation that Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Annunciation was purchased in 1899. This painting was the first work by an African-American artist to enter a public collection in the United States and now hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Art had great meaning  for Johnson on many emotional levels. Empathy, intellectual stimulation and aesthetic pleasure obviously guided his choices. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mark Tucker, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Director of Conservation, about one of Johnson's most surprising selections

The painting in question is Portrait of a Young Gentleman, by Antonello da Messina. Antonello came from Sicily, the only major Renaissance artist born in southern Italy. Somehow, Antonello established contacts with artists from the Netherlands and learned about oil painting. He was the first to master oil painting in Italy. His surviving works of art are comparatively rare and were not especially popular with American collectors in Johnson's time.

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Young Gentleman, 1474

Why, then, did Johnson buy this portrait of a brash young man with a probing look in his eyes?

"The subject of Antonello's portrait," Mark Tucker noted, "has just come into the studio from the street. The collar of his doublet is undone and the cord used to stitch it in place is dangling loose. Usually, the sitter in a Renaissance portrait is posed very formally, every detail of his attire in perfect order.

"Antonello is not concerned with a formal pose in this portrait, of how the subject was dressed. Instead, he painted the movements of his mind."

There can be little doubt that Johnson bought this outstanding work of Renaissance art because he sensed that this alert, questioning, savvy fellow from the Quattrocento was a kindred soul.

The movements of Johnson's mind led him from collecting rather conventional  contemporary works like Mary Cassatt's very early genre scene, On the Balcony, to more daring choices like the Antonello portrait . 

Édouard Manet, The Battle of the U.S.S.“Kearsarge” and the C.S.S.“Alabama”, 1864

Johnson's range of interest extended to the Impressionists and  in 1888 he purchased Édouard Manet's Civil War naval scene, The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama.” Johnson saw this striking painting at a display of Impressionist art, organized by the French art agent, Paul Durand-Ruel, in New York City. Johnson may have been influenced to buy Manet's painting by his own military experience during the Gettysburg campaign.

This almost monochromatic work utilized Japanese-inspired compositional elements like a high horizon line and the off-center placement of the schooner in the foreground of the painting to convey a "you-are-there" viewpoint. Manet was long thought to have witnessed the sea combat, which took place just outside Cherbourg harbor in 1864, but careful scholarship has revealed that he painted the battle based on newspaper accounts.

In 1894, Johnson purchased Jan van Eyck's small devotional work, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. With this pivotal acquisition, Johnson began assembling one of the largest collections of paintings from the Netherlands, works created between 1400 and 1700. By the end of his life, Johnson 's Flemish and Dutch masterpieces numbered 425. On the whole, he chose very wisely. But with art scholarship still in its infancy, a number of his paintings, thought to be by Rembrandt or by Bosch, have not retained their attribution.

Johnson also bought what he thought was a pair of tipsy Dutch drinkers by Frans Hals.  Subsequent research showed that it was painted by Judith Leyster, the greatest woman artist of the Dutch Golden Age. But an even greater surprise was in store about The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), painted around 1639. A print from the 1600 showed the same pair in the company of a lively skeleton, encouraging them to drink. In 1992, the conservators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art decided to put Leyster's painting to the test.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Judith Leyster's The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) 

As expected, a skeleton was detected lurking below a layer of overpainting. Mark Tucker meticulously removed this paint, restoring the skeleton to "life" and showing that Leyster's work had a very serious message. It was a memento mori, a caution about heedless over-indulgence and a warning against disregard of God's commandments.

Along with van Eyck's St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, the jewel of the Johnson Collection's Netherlandish works is Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460.  Along with Thomas Eakin's The Gross Clinic, van der Weyden's Crucifixion is the greatest painting in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is also a very powerful depiction of the struggle of faith vs. despair. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460

This pair of complementary wood panel paintings has been the subject of exhaustive study. It is now believed that they were placed side-by-side on the shutters of an elaborate altarpiece. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Mark Tucker showing the placement of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion on a model of a medieval church altarpiece, now missing

A wonderful model, which  Mark Tucker demonstrated at the press preview, shows the configuration of these Johnson collection paintings along with two others, discovered in 2012, that were part of the amazing altarpiece. The remaining paintings - and the altar - have yet to be discovered, if indeed they still exist.

Another work by Rogier van der Weyden figures in the Johnson Collection exhibit. The life-sized altarpiece, now in the Prado, Descent from the Cross, c. 1434, was copied many times. Around 1520, the Netherlandish artist, Joos van Cleve, reprieved Descent from the Cross, placing the dramatic scene against a naturalistic landscape. The original has a gold-leaf background.

Van Cleve's homage to van der Weyden has not been displayed for thirty years. It was painted on five wooden panels which have separated several times causing paint loss and other damage. The panels have also warped over time.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Lucia Bay with Joos van Cleve's The Descent from the Cross

A major conservation effort, requiring a year's exhaustive labor, was undertaken by Lucia Bay, an assistant conservator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The triumphant restoration is on display in the exhibit, enabling us to value van Cleve's painting as a major work of art. Rather than a derivative copy, van Cleve created a new version of this moving scene by van der Weyden, placing it within the context of the emerging school of landscape art.

Johnson traveled frequently to Europe to search out masterpieces. In an engaging memoir, Sight-Seeing in Berlin and Holland among Pictures (1892), he explained the philosophy upon which he based his collecting endeavors:

Art gives us real delight only when the eye derives pleasure from what is really worthy.

This is a cryptic remark, capable of being interpreted in a number of ways. Johnson closely studied art, becoming a master of appraisal. Yet the financial value of art works did not determine what was "really worthy" about the paintings and sculptures he collected.  Nor did Johnson select art works because they conformed to popular standards or the dictates of academic authority.

"Worth" derived from a process of engagement between collector and  object. Johnson carefully took the measure of the art he chose for his collection and  the paintings and sculptures, in turn, became an expression of his life, of the "the movements of his mind."

      Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of photo of John G. Johnson's home, c.1936                       Auguste Rodin's Thought appears at center

In one of the mural-sized photo's of his mansion, the one with paintings stacked floor to ceiling, we see one of the sculptures he collected. Thought by Auguste Rodin shows the head of his mistress/muse, Camille Claudel, emerging from a block of undressed marble. Rodin modeled the likeness of Claudel in clay but another artist, Camille Raynaud, did the actual sculpting.

Rodin originally called the work Thought Emerging from Matter. Looking at it in the exhibition galley of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one senses again "the movements of his mind" coming into play. Rodin's Thought clearly resonated with Johnson's powerful intellect and equally powerful emotions. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Auguste Rodin's Thought 

Upon receiving Thought, Johnson wrote to Rodin: 

[Y]our lovely marble has at last arrived and fascinates me . . . you have made that coldest of all things—marble—warm with life. I hope it will long dream in its present surroundings of paintings by the Masters of the Old and of the New Art.

That is where Rodin's Thought does indeed find its home, "dreaming" in the company of Johnson's treasures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Its companionship with The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama,” St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata and the other great works on display is about to enter a new phase, or perhaps new "dimension" would be more exact. 

The Philadelphia Museum will soon unveil the Johnson Collection in a new digital publication. According to a press release, the Philadelphia Museum curators have "made use of a new technology implementing IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework) to present digital images in a more versatile and flexible way."
When the digital version of the Johnson collection is released, I plan to do a follow-up review on this wonderful research tool.

"Masters of the Old and of the New Art" appearing in a new, digital format! There can be no more fitting way to begin the second century of the John G. Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image
Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish 1400-1464) Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460. Oil on panel, 71 inches × 6 feet 1 3/8 inches (180.3 × 186.4 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 335, 334. John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of photo of John G. Johnson, as a young boy, 1840's, combined with detail of Conrad F. Haeseler's Portrait of John G. Johnson, 1917. Oil on Panel, 34 x 24 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Miss Julia W. Frick and Sidney W. Frick, 1971.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit, Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection.showing photo of John G. Johnson's home. Archival Photo.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit, Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection.

Callisto Piazza (Italian,c.1500-1561/62) Musical Group, c.1520's, Oil on panel, 35 5/8 x 35 3/4 inches (90.5 x 90.8 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 234, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Antonello da Messina (Italian,1430-1479) Portrait of a Young Gentleman.  Oil on panel,
12 5/8 x 10 11/16 inches (32.1 x 27.1 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 159, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Édouard Manet (French, 1832-1883) The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama.”  Oil on canvas, 54 1/4 x 50 3/4 inches (137.8 x 128.9 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 1027, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Judith Leyster's The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), c.  1639. Oil on canvas, 35 1/16 x 28 15/16 inches (89.1 x 73.5 cm).  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 440, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460.

Anne Lloyd, Photos (2017) Mark Tucker, Director of Conservation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing the placement of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion on a model of a medieval church altarpiece, now missing. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Lucia Bay, Conservator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with Joos van Cleve's The Descent from the Cross. Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of photo of John G. Johnson's home, c.1936                Auguste Rodin's Thought appears at center. Archival Photo.                                               
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Auguste Rodin's Thought, modeled,1895, carved by Camille Raynaud, c.1900, Marble, 29 1/8 x 17 1/16 x 18 1/8 inches (74 x 43.4 x 46.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 1148, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

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