Art Museum celebrating great works left by Philadelphian, even if some not so great

In April 1917, a wealthy Philadelphia lawyer named John Johnson died. He left his enormous art collection to the city — nearly 1,500 pieces, the vast majority Renaissance and Dutch Masters paintings.

About 300 of those are on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, scattered among 48 galleries.

A new exhibition, “Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection,” on the centenary of Johnson’s extraordinary bequest, shows about 100 pieces in context of their collector, in ways that even Johnson would not recognize.

Johnson loved Philadelphia. He was a lawyer for the Phillies. He also represented major corporations including U.S. Steel, Standard Oil, and the American Sugar Refining Company (The Sugar Trust), which once controlled 98 percent of the country’s sugar refining industry.

Whenever Johnson argued corporate law in front of the Supreme Court — which he often did — he always hustled back to Philadelphia on the last train, said Jennifer Thompson, curator of the Johnson Collection.

“He was reportedly twice offered a position as a Supreme Court justice, and once asked to be the attorney general,” said Thompson. “We’re not sure why he turned them down, although I believe it’s because he would have had to leave his native Philadelphia.”

No surprise that when he died, Johnson left his house on South Broad Street and all the art inside to the people of Philadelphia. The house at 510 S. Broad St. became a public museum.

When the Great Depression hit, the city tightened its belt and closed the museum, eventually demolishing it. The art collection is still owned by Philadelphia; in the 1930s, it was moved the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which became its steward.

Upon closer inspection

Since then, conservators have taken a close look at the Titians, Bosches, and Rembrandts to discover they may not be what Johnson thought.

For example, a 17th-century painting by Judith Leyster, “The Last Drop,” shows two men at the end of a night of serious drinking. Giddy and flush, their cups are overturned showing there’s no booze left.

When Johnson bought the painting in 1908, they seemed to be having a good time.

Recently, with the help of X-ray scans, conservators discovered the artist had originally painted a third figure — a skeleton holding a burning candle — beckoning the drunken revelers toward death. The skeleton was painted out at some point, probably by a dealer, said Mark Tucker, the museum’s director of conservation.

“We found out, years later, that the skeleton was completely intact. It was painted over because somebody thought it was ghoulish, and they didn’t want it to be part of the picture. They wanted it to be straightforwardly appealing with no hint of moralizing,” said Tucker. “We realized Judith Leyster’s conception was to have a highly moralizing picture.”

In the 1990s, Tucker himself carefully pulled away a layer of greenish background paint to reveal mortality. It’s been on permanent display in the galleries for decades.

“We never told that story to the public,” said Thompson. “This is a great opportunity to represent the story of the skeleton.”

Colorful stories

“Old Masters Now” tell other mostly unknown stories about the Johnson paintings, many of which will look familiar to regular museum patrons. The 16th-century artist Titian painted a sitting portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto, distinct for the gauzy white curtain obscuring half of the archbishop’s face.

In the painting, Archinto, whom Titian painted just after he died following a highly politicized fight within the Vatican, is wearing a reddish brown robe, the color of a cardinal. But Titian painted the robe with a blue pigment called smalt, made from ground cobalt glass mixed with linseed oil.

Smalt is unstable, prone to fading and causing its linseed oil binding to turn brown. Archinto’s robe, originally, would have been a brilliant purple. In the highly charged environment of 16th-century Vatican, the color of the robe would have told a different story.

On another wall in the exhibition, a pair of paintings depict Jesus on the cross. The diptych “Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning” by Rogier van der Weyden from the mid-15th century, had been much more than a diptych.

The two paintings on wood panels are remarkably restrained — the color palette is limited, and the composition is intentionally flattened. For a religious painting, it seems a bit plain.

Using X-rays scans, Tucker realized there were curious dowel holes in the front of the panels underneath the paint layer. That discovery upheld a theory that these paintings were the front panels of hinged shutters to a carved altarpiece which, when opened, was likely 26 feet long.

The diptych was never meant to be seen on its own.

“It’s intentionally austere, because you are supposed to be bowled over when these are swung aside and you see an opulently gilded interior with richly glazed figures and fantastically intricate tracery,” said Tucker.

Another wall of the exhibition has a cluster of 10 paintings Johnson collected by Hieronymus Bosch. Conservators now say nine of them are copies — only one is an actual Bosch.

No disappointments

Even though they are far less valuable paintings than what Johnson thought he had purchased, Thompson said he would not have blinked.

“I suspect he would have loved this exhibition,” she said. “He would not be upset that some of his Bosch paintings were not by Bosch. It happened even in his lifetime that authorship changed. He was never angry that he’d spent a lot of money on something that turned out not to be a Rembrandt.”

Some conservation discoveries on display in the exhibition are brand new. An early 16th-century painting “Descent from the Cross” by Joos van Cleve has not been seen for three decades.

Severely damaged, it was thought to be a mere artist’s copy of a superior painting by Rogier van der Weyden. It was painted on several wood panels that had been glued together; over time, the glue failed. The panels had bowed, separated, and the paint surface split.

Painstakingly pieced back together, the paint surface cleaned and the seams filled in, the Cleve revealed itself to be a completely original work, in homage to Weyden. Its conservation was finished just two days before it was hung in the gallery.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.