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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.

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