Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection – A Review

by artfuldiner on January 3, 2018

in Artful Diner Review, Breaking News, Opinion, Special Events

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

In 1917, John G. Johnson (pictured), the most famous lawyer of his day, left his astonishing trove of European art to the City of Philadelphia. To honor the centenary of that remarkable bequest, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection. The 1,279 paintings, 51 sculptures, and over 100 objects in other media are the keystone of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This remarkable exhibition includes masterpieces by key figures of the Renaissance such as Botticelli, Bosch, and Titian; important seventeenth-century Dutch paintings by Rembrandt, Jan Steen, and others; and works by American and French masters of Johnson’s own time, most notably Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Édouard Manet and Claude Monet. Old Masters Now also provides a behind-the-scenes look at the collaborative work of the Museum’s curators and conservators, who have worked with the collection since it was entrusted to the Museum’s care in the early 1930s. The exhibition explores a host of fascinating questions regarding attribution and authenticity and illuminates the detective work that has been brought to bear by specialists who have reevaluated the original meaning and intent of works that were created centuries ago.

Last Drop - The Gay Cavalier, Judith LeysterOne of the most striking examples of artistic sleuthing revolves around a painting depicting two men approaching the end of a night of drinking. At the time of purchase, Johnson (and scholarship at the time) believed the painting to be the work of Frans Hals. Subsequent research, however, revealed that The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) had actually been painted by Judith Leyster, the greatest woman artist of the Dutch Golden Age. But a much greater surprise proved to be in the offing… In 1979, an art historian discovered an early copy of the painting that included a skeleton. The Johnson painting showed no skeleton, but a conservator’s examination and microscopic cleaning tests in 1992 determined that though the skeleton had once been painted over, it remained completely intact. Removal of the overpainting, documented in a series of photographs, revealed that Leyster’s painting was, in fact, a memento mori, a work of art designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the shortness and fragility of human life.

The exhibition also explores those areas of European painting in which Johnson focused in depth, including Italian, Dutch & Netherlandish, and French art. His collection of Dutch paintings, for example, was among the largest of his day, and was especially rich in landscapes by Jacob van Ruisdael and the animated genre scenes of Jan Steen.

Jan Havickszoon Steen was born in Leiden, The Netherlands, in 1626, and also died there in 1679. He lived during the same period as Rembrandt. Steen came from a family of brewers, which may account for the abundance of alcohol in many of his paintings… He was also known to drink quite a bit himself. By way of defense, however, in the 17th century, people consumed a great deal of alcohol, as water quality was extremely poor and alcoholic beverages were much safer to drink. Steen was quite prolific, producing approximately 800 paintings, of which roughly 350 survive. His work was valued by his contemporaries; and, as a result, he was well paid for his artistic efforts. His work also proved a source of inspiration for many painters who followed him.

Daily life was Jan Steen’s main pictorial theme. Many of the genre scenes he portrayed are lively to the point of chaos and eroticism, so much so that “a Jan Steen household,” meaning a messy scene, became a Dutch proverb (een huishouden van Jan Steen). However, he also created many works with biblical, mythological, and historical themes, portraits, still lifes, and natural scenes. His portraits of children are famous; and he is also well known for his mastery of light and attention to detail, most notably in Persian rugs and other textiles. His colorful paintings consistently incorporated a good deal of humor, wit and warmth.

Rhetoricians at the Window by Jan SteenTypical of Steen’s style is his Rhetoricians at a Window (1658-1665). Pictured are five men at a window (there is also a sixth man at the top right who is not clearly visible). These men are members of a chamber of rhetoric, a society of amateur poets and performers, which existed in Belgium and The Netherlands since the 15th century. At the left, the group’s orator reads a paper titled Lof Liet (Song of Praise), while the poet who composed the verse looks on over his shoulder. Behind them stands a man who is drinking. The figure on the right is critically listening to the song while firmly holding a jug that probably contains wine. Behind him is a jester wearing a red cap. He is entertaining the crowd that we cannot see but who are supposedly listening to the performance. On top of the window is a vine growing with ripe grapes. Below the window hangs the emblem of this chamber of rhetoricians, a glass of wine and two crossed pipes. Jan Steen created several other paintings featuring the rhetoricians. In this particular painting, it is unclear whether Steen wanted to show his appreciation for the rhetoricians or whether he is somewhat sarcastic in the way he depicts them due to the many references to drinking.

As the title of the exhibition implies, Johnson’s chief interest was in Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque painting… However, as several art critics have noted, some of the most striking paintings in the exhibition are those acquisitions from the collector’s own time. The Basket of Flowers and Fruit (1848-1849), for example, is a passionate late still-life by Eugène Delacroix. Then there’s Édouard Manet’s majestic The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama” (1864), Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil by Claude Monet (1874), and The Moorish Chief (1878), a superb Orientalist portrait by Eduard Charlemont.

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Mr. Johnson was particularly fond of the landscapes, seascapes, and portraits by Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet, a French painter who led the Realism movement in 19th century French painting. Courbet, rejecting academic convention and the Romanticism of the previous generation of visual artists, was committed to painting only what he could see. His independence set an example that paved the way for later artists, such as the Impressionists and Cubists. Courbet’s Marine, which records the phenomenon of a waterspout, a tornado that forms over water, was painted in Trouville in 1866 and is brilliant in scope. As various art critics have pointed out, the painting is radically direct. By facing the sea, contriving a low horizon and a great space for the forceful interplay of clouds, waves and sky, the artist dramatizes our impression of actually being in the scene. This prelude to Impressionism is an incredibly masterful rendition of the variations of light and weather known to materialize over the English Channel.

Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection, rich in insights and revelations, is a thoughtful reexamination of the great masterpieces collected over a century ago. This exciting exhibition will be on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through February 19, 2018.

Bon Appétit!


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