Pine Shores Art Association Sponsors Trip to Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Old Masters of the Johnson Collection

By PAT JOHNSON | Nov 29, 2017
Photo by: Pat Johnson Members of Pine Shores Art Association enter the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The “Old Masters Now: Celebrating the John G. Johnson Collection” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Feb. 19,  showcases just some of the works collected by the Philadelphia lawyer who was born in 1841 in Chestnut Hill. He rose to prominence as the attorney for the “robber barons” and their companies of the age: J.P. Morgan, Standard Oil, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Sugar Trust and U.S. Steel. He spent some of his wealth collecting art.

Johnson amassed a collection of 1,279 paintings and 51 sculptures, most from the 14th up to the 19th centuries, – “One of the finest collections of European Art in the United States by a private collector,” states the museum brochure. At his death in 1917, he left the collection to the City of Philadelphia to become the basis of the museum.

For one of its bi-annual bus excursions, Pine Shores Art Association sponsored a trip to see the collection on Nov. 16.

A tour guide explained that Johnson was assisted in collecting by a friend and landscape painter, Alexander Harrison. Harrison did well in his choices of Impressionist works, collecting works by Degas, Pissaro, and also Philadelphia painter John Singer Sargent.

But in some of the early works, Johnson was occasionally duped by purchasing works that, although fine, were copies or by apprentices to the masters.

Such was the case with the nine paintings purportedly by the 15th-century Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch. According to a tour guide, only one, “The Adoration of the Magi,” has been authenticated. But that is not so unusual as Bosch signed only 17 paintings and was widely copied by his contemporaries.

And a painting of Christ, “The Man of Sorrows” dated 1490, was purchased with the understanding that it was by Netherlandish painter Hans Memling. However, it was recently identified as a copy by the Italian painter Dominico Ghirlandio. Painters in the Netherlands used oils while this painting is done in egg tempera on wood panel.

The guide explained that the “Old Masters Now” part of the exhibit has to do with new technologies in conservation and up-to-date studies in art history.

She was pleased to show a painting by 17th-century Dutch painter Judith Leyster, a female artist who was in a guild and could have her own students. Leyster’s painting “The Last Drop,” also known as “The Gay Cavalier,” was painted in 1639. It’s a morality painting, but when Johnson obtained the painting, it was merely a domestic scene of two men drinking with a candle sitting on a table. However, a discovered copy of the painting by an inferior artist showed something else. Through infrared photography of the Leyster original, conservators were able to discern a skeleton hovering behind the drunkards and holding the melting candle and an hourglass – an indication of the briefness of life.

The museum was able to remove the added paint and restore the original intent of the artist and a much more attention-grabbing work.

Johnson purchased many Dutch or Netherlandish paintings, enjoying the domestic scenes of everyday life that painters in the largely Protestant areas of the Netherlands favored. Protestant churches were not patrons or supporters of artists such as Catholic countries were.

The Dutch painter Jan Steen focused on a tavern window to capture “Rhetoricians at a Window,” in 1658. Rhetoricians were traveling actors who could read dramatic works to the illiterate. And an 1886 painting, “Interior of a Tavern” by Danish painter Peter Severin Krøyer, was purchased for Johnson by Harrison. Johnson enthused on its details and realism in a letter to his agent.

Johnson did purchase two original and priceless paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Head of Christ,” and “Slaughtered Ox,” a symbolic presentation of the Crucifixion.

One of the most popular paintings in the collection is “The Moorish Chief” by Austrian painter Edvard Charlemont. Painted in 1878, it spoke to the fascination of all things oriental and was originally titled “The Harem Guard.”

One of the precursors of the Impressionist movement and a favorite of Vincent Van Gogh was French painter Jean Francois Millet, the founder of the Barbizon school. Johnson acquired Millet’s delicate pastel “The Goat Girl,” painted in 1868.

His tastes expanded as he continued to move in the world of art, and Harrison was able to acquire contemporary works including Edgar Degas’ “Ballet from an Opera Box,” 1884, and “Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks” by James McNeil Whistler. Winslow Homer’s “Winter Coast’ was obtained for the artist only months after Homer had painted it in Maine.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is smaller than the Metropolitan in New York but is still an imposing edifice that needs more than one day to investigate. After their guided tour of the Johnson Collection, the members of PSAA had three hours left to explore. Many headed to the Art Café in the museum and were pleasantly surprised by the range and quality of the foodstuffs available for brunch.

Hours later, most were worn out after following their whims through the various galleries on three floors of the museum.

One of the bright points was seeing the sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte by Auguste Rodin in the European collection. A guard said it had arrived just a few days earlier. This is the “lost” sculpture that had been found in Madison, N.J.’s city hall two years ago but only announced to the world this October. The story is the piece was purchased by philanthropist Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, who had built the Hartley Dodge Memorial Building in Madison, named for her son who was killed in an automobile accident. She decorated the interior of the building with items from her own collections back in the 1930s. The origin of the bust was lost in the bureaucracy of city hall until a recent college graduate hired as an archivist recognized its importance. The bust is on extended loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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