You’ll probably recognize the works from Botticelli, Bosch, Titian, Rembrandt, Monet and more in Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection, a new and exciting exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
That’s because you’ve seen them before, placed unobtrusively among the museum collections.
They’re all the legacy of one generous donor — John G. Johnson — who 100 years ago gifted a tremendous array of master works to the City of Philadelphia.
Now for the first time, the works are gathered in one space in the museum in celebration of both the 100-year anniversary of Johnson’s gift and Parkway 100, the centennial of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Together, they act as time capsules into some of the most important periods in art history.
- Old Masters: Celebrating the Johnson Collection is on display from November 3, 2017 to February 19, 2018.
- The exhibit celebrates the 100-year anniversary of an unprecedented gift from John G. Johnson to the city of Philadelphia.
- The exhibition serves as on overview of master works from Botticelli, Bosch, Titian, Rembrandt, Monet and more.
- The works on display highlight the day-to-day investigative work that goes on at museums around the world.
Opulent works by Bosch and Van Cleve invite museum-goers as far back as the Renaissance era, while a slightly darker veil beckons exhibition attendees into the 17th-century Dutch interpretations of Leyster and Rembrandt. There’s even an impressive sampling of works from Johnson’s own time, including Manet, Whistler and Mary Cassatt.
As incredible as this time-capsule journey is, the behind-the-scenes look into the day-to-day operations of the museum curators is even more eye-opening.
With 100 years of curatorial research and preservation behind it, the Johnson collection offers a unique opportunity to tell the story of the interpretive, archeological and technological work that makes exhibitions like these — and our understanding of them — possible.
Works to Look Out For
The first stop on your collection tour will introduce you to the life and times of donor John G. Johnson. Massive photographs of Johnson’s South Philadelphia homes serve as delightful windows into the mindset of one of our city’’s most passionate lovers of the arts.
Over time, the plush environs of his home became obscured by layers upon layers of art, climbing the walls and stacked along the floors, making their way onto furniture and into closets.
Johnson himself was just as impressive. Described by The New York Times as “the greatest lawyer in the English-speaking world,” Johnson received invitations from multiple presidents asking him to serve on the Supreme Court or as Attorney General. Those invitations are on display in the gallery.
Once you know the man, you’ll get to know the master works he spent his life alongside. Look out for a large-scale painting by Judith Leyster, The Last Drop. When owned by Johnson, the piece was missing the famous skeleton that gives its drunken revelers a moral backdrop. The skeleton remained hidden beneath layers of overpaint until a lucky discovery during a cleaning in 1992 revealed its existence.
Take a close look at a collection of Bosches along the wall — or so they appear at first. Museum curators have since discovered that only one of the 10 pieces owned by Johnson was created by Bosch himself, thanks to advances in the ability to date the wood that backs the pieces.
A striking painting of ships at war over a dark blue sea will take you back to the Battle of the USS Kearsage and the CSS Alabama. Long thought to be a witness of the battle himself, Édouard Manet actually reconstructed the scene from newspaper accounts.
These pieces and more provide a stepping stone into the fascinating world of art discovery. Curators will be on hand during the exhibition to answer any questions you may have along the way.
How is it that one man came to own more than 600 pieces of art in a single lifetime?
It was partly a marker of the times, as collectors like Johnson, Dr. Albert C. Barnes and others were encouraged in their artistic obsession by advisors, fairs and even department stores. A symposium on November 4, “Have to Have It: Philadelphians Collect (1850-1930),” introduces you to the collectors’ craze of the period.
Have you ever been drawn into more than just a painting, but also the frame that holds it? On January 3, Mark Tucker, The Neubauer Family Director of Conservation, talks about the complex relationship between the two in “Between Our World and the Picture’s.”
Then just before the exhibition draws to a close, enter into the world of Hieronymus Bosch. On February 10, works by Bosch and his followers inspire a live performance by the Curtis Institute of Music.
Tickets and More
Admission to Old Masters Now is free with admission to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, $14 for students and youth (13-18) and free for children 12 and under.
Tickets are available online here.