Corporate lawyer and art collector John Graver Johnson (1846-1917) amassed a distinguished collection of nearly 1,600 European paintings, sculpture and textiles over the course of approximately three decades. In his will, Johnson left his art collection, art library and home at 510 South Broad Street to the City of Philadelphia, and named the Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities as Trustee of his residual estate. A 1917 codicil to the will mandated that the collection remain installed in his home unless an extraordinary situation should arise, making a move necessary. To oversee the collection, Edward Hamilton Bell (1857-1929) was appointed its first curator around 1920. Bell assumed the position after serving for two years as acting director of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts (which, since 1938, has operated as the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
As early as 1919, legal proceedings began, and by 1921 an official petition was placed before the Orphans' Court of Philadelphia for permanent relocation of the collection and the sale of the 510 S. Broad St. property. The plea was grounded in the fact that the cost of renovation that the property required in order to house the collection safely would exceed available funds. The petition was dismissed, and the City proceeded with renovation projects to the extent afforded by the limited budget.
By 1933, the Depression had added an overwhelming burden to the maintenance of the deteriorating property. An informal proposition to display the collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was then agreed upon by the City and Trustee of the collection. Subsequently, the property was sold and the City and Trustee entered into a lease agreement with the Museum. The Johnson Collection was to be displayed and stored at the Museum in concordance with museum hours and operations. The Trustee was responsible for rent payments and providing guardianship for the collection as well as paying maintenance costs, including contributions to the general Restoration Fund of the Museum. The Trustee would continue its role as custodian and administrator of the collection.
In 1926, Henri Marceau (1896-1969) was appointed assistant curator of the Johnson Collection. Two years later he was promoted to curator. (Some sources cite 1927 or 1929 as the date of the latter appointment.) He was also an assistant professor at University of Pennsylvania's School of Fine Arts from 1925 until 1929, when he took on the additional role of Curator of Fine Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1933 Marceau's position at the Museum was revised to Curator of Paintings, and then to Chief, Department of Paintings and Sculpture in 1937. At this time he was also appointed Associate Director, taking on full directorship of the Museum from 1955 to 1964. Marceau maintained his role as curator of the Johnson Collection throughout and beyond these various appointments, until his death. Assisting Marceau, Barbara Sweeny (1904-1991) joined the Johnson Collection staff in the late 1920s as a secretary. By 1955, she was appointed associate curator.
With Sweeny's assistance, Marceau oversaw the 1933-1934 relocation and installation of the collection in the allocated galleries and storage spaces at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as the construction of additional gallery and storage space between 1939 and 1941. Together they organized several exhibitions featuring works from the Johnson Collection including "Flemish Painting," "Vienna Art Treasures" and "Flanders in the 15th Century," and oversaw the revision of the original Italian and Dutch and Flemish catalogues, published in 1966 and 1972, respectively, and the production of a Book of Illustrations in 1953. Upon Marceau's death, Sweeny assumed the position of curator and remained as such until her retirement in 1972.
The next "generation" of Johnson Collection curatorship began with Joseph J. Rishel. Rishel came to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1971 as Associate Curator of Painting before 1900. By the following November, he was also serving as curator to the Johnson Collection. (Overseeing the department since its inception in 1973, Rishel is now the Museum's Gisela and Dennis Alter Senior Curator of European Painting before 1900, and the Senior Curator of the John G. Johnson Collection and the Rodin Museum.) Irene Konefal joined the Johnson Collection staff in 1973 as assistant curator and secretary. Upon her departure in 1980, Louise (Lulu) Lippincott assumed the same curatorial role and remained in that position until early 1983. That spring, Carl B. Strehlke accepted the position of assistant curator of the John G. Johnson Collection. A few years later, he was named adjunct curator (a position he holds to this day), and Lawrence W. Nichols joined the staff to take over the assistant curator post. Nichols was appointed associate curator in 1992 and left some time the following year.
Between the years of 1972 and 1993, the Johnson Collection curatorial staff organized three exhibitions at the Museum devoted exclusively to John G. Johnson and his collected works of art. Reflecting the diversity of Johnson's tastes and acquisitions, these were: "Paintings from Siena" (December 1984-February 1985); "John G. Johnson: Collector of Contemporary Art" (December 1988-March 1989); and "John G. Johnson: A Celebration of 150 Years" (March-July 1991). Marking what would have been Johnson's 150th birthday, the latter exhibition featured biographical and archival materials that documented "the patterns of Johnson's emerging taste and the decisions he made to acquire some of the most important works to come to this country at the turn of the century." In addition to these exhibitions, pieces from the Johnson Collection were included in a number of other shows organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as by other national and international museums.
During this time period, the trustee bank went through several name changes: from Pennsylvania Company to First Pennsylvania Bank (1971) to CoreStates Bank, N.A. (1981). Other names important to the administration of the collection from 1972 to 1993 include the law firm of Saul Ewing Remick & Saul, which has provided legal counsel to the Trustee since 1918 when it operated as Prichard, Saul, Bayar and Evans. In 1983 John J. Lombard, Jr., an attorney with Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel, came to represent the Museum in legal proceedings. In 1987 he joined the firm of Morgan Lewis Bockius, and continued serving as Museum counsel.