John G. Johnson

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John G. Johnson, circa 1913.

John Graver Johnson (1841, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – April 13, 1917, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) was an American corporate lawyer and art collector. The Philadelphia law firm that he founded in 1863 continues under the name Saul Ewing. His collection of nearly 1,300 paintings forms the core of early European works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


The son of a blacksmith, he attended Philadelphia public schools, and apprenticed in the law offices of Benjamin & Murray Rush. He was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar in February 1863, and served briefly in the American Civil War. He had an extraordinary memory, reportedly memorizing Shakespeare plays as a youth, and reciting extended citations of law in the courtroom.[1]

He argued 168 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in 1884, representing the Standard Oil Company, the Sugar Trust, the American Tobacco Company, and the Northern Securities Company. He was counsel for J. P. Morgan & Company, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the New York Central Railroad, the Baldwin Locomotive Company, the United States Steel Corporation, the Amalgamated Copper Company, the American Distilleries Company, and many other corporations and banks.[2]

Johnson declined offers to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court from U.S. Presidents James Garfield and Grover Cleveland. U.S. President William McKinley unsuccessfully sought him to become U.S. Attorney General.[3]

In an April 15, 1917 obituary, The New York Times called him, "the greatest lawyer in the English-speaking world," and, "probably less known to the general public in proportion to his importance than any other man in the United States."[4]

Art collecting[edit]

John G. Johnson Collection Museum (center), 510 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA. Part of Johnson's residence is visible at far right.

Johnson amassed one of the finest art collections in the United States. Relying on his own judgment and study, he concentrated on early-Renaissance Italian primitives, Spanish, Flemish, and Dutch paintings. He also bought works by artists who were his contemporaries, including Eduard Charlemont, Mariano Fortuny, T. Alexander Harrison, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, John Singer Sargent, and James Whistler. He wrote a book about his annual trips to Europe: Sight-Seeing in Berlin and Holland among Pictures (1892).

Family and bequest[edit]

In 1875, he married Ida Powel Morrell, a widow with three small children. They had no children together. He built a house at 506 South Broad Street, and later bought the adjacent house to exhibit his art collection.

In his Will, he left his collection to the City of Philadelphia with the provision that it continue to be exhibited at 510 South Broad Street. This arrangement lasted only until June 1933, when the collection was "temporarily" transferred to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, based on the argument that the house was not fireproof. The City of Philadelphia demolished the Broad Street house in the late-1950s.[5]

Exhibited as a separate collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for more than 50 years, in the mid-1980s permission was granted for the Museum to integrate Johnson's paintings into its full collection.[6]

Selected works from the Johnson Collection[edit]


  • Barnie F. Winkelman, John G. Johnson, Lawyer and Art Collector, 1841-1917 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1942).
  1. ^ New York Times obituary, April 15, 1917
  2. ^ NYT obituary.
  3. ^ NYT obituary.
  4. ^ NYT obituary.
  5. ^ George E. Thomas, et al., Frank Furness: The Complete Works (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), p. 169.
  6. ^ John G. Johnson, Philadelphia Bar Association

External links[edit]

  • "John G. Johnson, Giant of the Philadelphia Bar" [1]
  • Catalogue of the John G. Johnson Collection (1914) [2]
  • "John G. Johnson's Art," Time Magazine, November 10, 1941 [3]
  • John G. Johnson Papers, Philadelphia Museum of Art [4]