“There are still so many paintings on the floor, I just don’t know where to put them,” complained Hendrik Willem Mesdag to his art dealer. The artist/collector would soon solve the problem by building a museum next to his house in The Hague, exhibiting his own work with that of other Dutch and French artists. John G. Johnson visited in the early 1890s and left impressed but sad. “We heard the door of the gallery close with that feeling of regret which comes to us, as we lose sight, possibly forever, of some beautiful thing on earth.”
Back home on Broad Street in Philadelphia, Johnson would soon create his own version of such a gallery experience.
In The American Scene, Henry James described Johnson’s gallery “at the edge of a vast, vacant Philadelphia street…vacant of everything but an immeasurable bourgeois blankness.” James entered and found it “a friendly house…given over, from top to toe, to a dazzling collection of pictures … remarkably rich the store of acquisition, in the light of which the whole energy of the keen collector showed: the knowledge, the acuteness, the audacity, the incessant watch for opportunity.”
John G. Johnson’s Philadelphia art collection had joined the ranks of the world-class.
“The greatest lawyer in the English-speaking world” as the New York Times would describe Johnson, had the income to support his voracious appetite for art. From 1884, when he argued his first case before the Supreme Court of the United States, until his death in 1917, Johnson would bring a total of 168 cases. He appeared before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania thousands of times.
Johnson’s “best-known local clients included Peter A.B. Widener and William L. Elkins, who made millions of dollars in the operation of horse-drawn carriages and the electrical streetcars. The Baldwin Locomotive Works was also a client, as was John Wanamaker.” Gilded Age moguls: J.P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie and Pierre S. duPont wouldn’t make a move until consulting with Johnson. He successfully represented the “Sugar Trust” and became the go-to antitrust expert for big tobacco, big banking, big railroading and big oil.
“By the time of his death,” the Philadelphia Museum of Art tells us, “Johnson had acquired nearly 1,300 paintings, primarily from the fourteenth through nineteenth centuries; more than 150 sculptures, textiles, and other objects; and an art library of approximately 2,500 books, journals, and auction catalogues. The collection, which has been entrusted to the Philadelphia Museum of Art since the 1930s, includes masterpieces by key figures of the Renaissance such as Bosch, Botticelli, 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, notably John Singer Sargent, Édouard Manet, and Claude Monet.”
Having filled his home at 426 South Broad with art, Johnson moved to a larger residence a block away, at 506. George Biddle visited there around 1913: “He had eleven hundred masterpieces in a firetrap on South Broad Street. I had a ticket of admission to his house; and once when he was not at home, I poked my nose in various corners that were not commonly visited by the public. I found two Chardins in his boot closet, many examples of the Barbizon school in his bathroom; and Sargents, Manets, and French impressionists in the corridors of the servants’ stairway.”
“His pictures are everywhere, wrote the New York Times in June 1914. “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.”
A year later, Johnson bought the larger mansion next door specifically to serve as his gallery. Originally finished in 1874 by Furness & Hewitt, 510 South Broad had been significantly altered in 1900 by architect Charles M. Burns for art collector Francis Thomas Sully Darley.
For his gallery, Johnson found inspiration in that of New York client Henry Clay Frick and, of course, the one he visited so many years before in The Hague. Johnson sought to create a powerful, unforgettable experience: a place where visitors could find intimate moments with “some beautiful thing on earth.”
Out-of-town visitors might feel that pang of regret as they left 510 South Broad Street, “possibly forever.” But those fortunate enough to live in Philadelphia? They could come back anytime. According to the gold-leaf sign at the entrance, “The John G. Johnson Art Collection” was “Open Free, Daily 9 to 5, Sunday 1 to 5.”
[Sources: Avis Berman, “A Philadelphia Lawyer’s Gilded Age Collection,” The New York Review of Books, December 6, 2017; John G. Johnson, Sight-seeing in Berlin and Holland Among Pictures, (Allen, Lane & Scott’s, 1892; Reprinted from The Philadelphia Press); Gerard J. St. John, “John G. Johnson: Giant of the Philadelphia Bar,” The Philadelphia Lawyer, Winter 2007. Vol. 69. No. 4]