Born, raised and educated in Philadelphia, John Graver Johnson became one of the city's preeminent citizens, noted not only for his long and successful practice as an attorney but also for his extensive collection of European art. Johnson was born in Chestnut Hill, an area just outside of the city proper, on April 4, 1841. He was the eldest of three sons of David, a blacksmith, and Elizabeth Graver, a seamstress. An earnest student, Johnson attended Philadelphia's prestigious Central High School. Upon his graduation in 1857, he began his legal studies through entry-level jobs at various law firms. While working, Johnson attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School and upon receiving his LL.B. degree, he was admitted to the Philadelphia bar in 1863. After a brief stint in a voluntary artillery company during the Civil War, Johnson returned to Philadelphia and began his legal practice at the office of William F. Judson. Realizing a need for specialization in corporation law, Johnson devoted his practice to that field and became one of the country's best-known lawyers. He argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and in several antitrust cases represented some of the country's industrial leaders, including Standard Oil, American Tobacco Company and the Delaware and Hudson Railroad Company. He turned down two presidential offers to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as a cabinet position as attorney general.
Apparently no less ardent than his devotion to law was Johnson's interest in art, particularly painting. Beginning in the late 1880s, Johnson often traveled during the summer to Europe, acquiring works of art of the fourteenth- to nineteenth-centuries. He also purchased from art dealers in Philadelphia and New York City. Johnson's showcase for his art was his residence at 510 South Broad Street, in the center of the city. Purchased in 1915, it was the house next door to his previous home, which could no longer accommodate his continued acquisitions. Johnson's art library was no less burgeoning. Even in the larger home, he needed to store a significant number of volumes in his basement, as well as parlor office, library (including its secret closet), a small room on the south side of the house, a linen closet, and various spaces on the third and top floors.
Upon Johnson's death in 1917, his collection of 1,200 paintings, approximately 400 pieces of sculpture and textiles, and 2,500 volume art library, came to the City of Philadelphia in fulfillment of his bequest. As stipulated in his will, the collection was to remain displayed in his home "unless some extraordinary situation should arise making it exceedingly injudicious to keep [it] in the house." The stipulation set off decades of litigation as the residence, as early as 1919, was determined to be unsafe for housing art. After years of court petitions and filings, the Museum became the Johnson Collection's permanent home.
Although attributions to many paintings have been revised over the years, the Johnson Collection remains a showcase for many important artists, such as Botticelli, Rubens, Constable, Corot, Rousseau, Sargent and Whistler. In addition to maintaining his own private collection of art, Johnson, as a member of the Fairmount Park Commission, oversaw the W. P. Wilstach Collection, another major collection of art bequeathed to the City. As director of the Wilstach Committee, Johnson administered the fund that allowed for additional and significant purchases. He also served on the board to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Notwithstanding his devotion to the practice of law and the collection of art, Johnson did make time to marry when he was thirty-four years old. In 1875 he took as his wife Ida Powel Morrell, a widow and mother of three young children. She met Johnson as a client, seeking his legal advice after the death of her husband Edward. Unlike Johnson's humbler heritage, Ida could trace her lineage to several prominent American families. On the paternal side, she descended from some of Philadelphia's important Revolutionary families, namely Powel and Willing. Her mother's family traced back to the Van Courtlands and Beekmans of New York and the de Veaux of South Carolina. Her son Edward also made a name for himself, serving four terms as a U.S. Representative (for Pennsylvania as a Republican). Born in 1840, Ida predeceased her husband by nearly a decade, having died in 1908 at the age of sixty-seven. She and Johnson had no children.