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John G. Johnson Papers

Identifier: JGJ

Scope and Contents

While building a reputation as one of the country's preeminent corporate lawyers, John Graver Johnson also began, by the 1880s, to amass what would become an esteemed collection of European art. By the time of his death in 1917, he acquired 1,200 paintings primarily from the fourteenth- through nineteenth-centuries, hundreds of pieces of sculpture and textiles, as well as an art library of approximately 2,500 books, journals and auction catalogs. The John G. Johnson Papers consist of correspondence, photographs, invoices and legal documents that make evident Johnson's process in building his art collection, as well as the disposition of these acquisitions and other personal belongings after his death. The collection also includes a significant number of photographs Johnson compiled in oversized albums to commemorate his travels to Europe with his wife, Ida, as well as formal portraits of each.

The first series, "Correspondence" contains Johnson's communications primarily with dealers and other art experts who advised him and sometimes negotiated purchases on his behalf. Well represented in these files are letters from Bernard Berenson and W. R. Valentiner. Both noted scholars compiled the three-volume catalog privately published by Johnson of his art collection in 1913 and 1914. Also included are photocopies and transcriptions of many of Johnson's letters held by other repositories, as well as original invoices and shipping instructions issued for many of his purchases.

The second series, "Photographs and other images," illustrates three components to Johnson's life. Portraits of Johnson and his wife Ida make up the "Personal" subseries along with an oversized print of the drawing room to Johnson's center city home. Their summer trips to Europe are captured in seven oversized photograph albums comprising the "Travel" subseries. Images of the couple's stops at various cities in Europe in 1878 and 1881 each comprise three volumes. An additional single volume documents an undated trip to Norway. The third subseries, "Works of art" consists of hundreds of photographs and prints that were likely included in Johnson's extensive library and attest to his disciplined and exhaustive study of art. While the categories in which the images are arranged and certain annotations suggest the handiwork of curators, most of the images appear to have been compiled by Johnson.

Inventories and appraisals of Johnson's estate taken between 1917 and 1918 make up most of the documentation of the "Estate" series. Both inventory and appraisal are combined in one document, and at the time these documents were executed, duplicates were made of those pertaining to his "paintings and other artistic property." Some of those duplicates were later annotated by curatorial staff, Trustee representatives and an appraiser who served as the official court examiner. Also included in this series are bound copies of Johnson's will, with photocopies of same, and miscellaneous papers pertaining to Johnson's residuary property (items unrelated to art) and investments.

The items processed under the "Other subjects" series are two family bibles, a photocopy of an art travel guide written by Johnson and published in 1892 and two documents that likely stemmed from his legal practice.


  • 1846-1918, 1927-1955, 1973-1993, undated
  • Majority of material found within 1880-1918


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The John Graver Johnson Papers are the physical property of the John G. Johnson Collection, and are administered by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining permission from rights holders for publication and for other purposes where stated.

Biographical / Historical

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 from 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, Philadelphia. 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.

Works Consulted

  1. Dictionary of American Biography, s.v. "Johnson, John Graver."
  2. undated Powel House, Philadelphia, Pa. Hare-Powel, Robert Johnson, comp. "Hare-Powel and Kindred Families Notebook."
  3. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. Includes untitled essay re history of the Johnson Collection. Johnson Collection Curatorial Records. Writings series.
  4. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1942. Winkelman, Barnie F John G. Johnson: Lawyer and Art Collector: 1841-1917.
  5. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995). Philadelphia Museum of Art Handbook of the Collections.
  6. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004). Strehlke, Carl Brandon Italian Paintings: 1250-1450: in the John G. Johnson Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  7. (February 2013). An electronic resource available on the Museum Library's online catalog. Adams, Bertha, comp An Enduring Legacy: the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Its Benefactors.


26.5 linear feet

Language of Materials



The John G. Johnson Papers consist of correspondence, photographs, invoices and legal documents that make evident Johnson's process in building his art collection, as well as the disposition of these acquisitions and other personal belongings after his death. The collection also includes a significant number of photographs Johnson compiled in oversized albums to commemorate his travels to Europe with his wife, Ida, as well as formal portraits of each.


The collection includes some reference material, particularly photocopies of Johnson's outgoing letters, which curators of the John G. Johnson Collection compiled circa April 2008 from a variety of archival repositories and other sources between 1927-1993. Photographic portrait of John G. Johnson and oversized print of room interior were transferred from Prints, Drawings and Photographs Department on March 30, 2012. Estate-related documents were received circa September 2012 and January-February 2013 from the Department of European Painting before 1900, the John G. Johnson Collection, and the Rodin Museum. Images of works of art, eight oversized photograph albums, and two family bibles were transferred from the museum Library.

Existence and Location of Copies

A majority of the John G. Johnson Papers have been digitized and is available online at:

Processing Information

These materials were arranged and described by Bertha Adams and Courtney Smerz in 2003. Revised by Bertha Adams in 2013. Funded by a grant from The John G. Johnson Trust.

Guide to the John G. Johnson Papers
Finding aid prepared by Bertha Adams and Courtney Smerz in 2003. Additions by Bertha Adams in 2013.
2003, 2013
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Funded by a grant from The John G. Johnson Trust

Repository Details

Part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives Repository

Philadelphia Museum of Art
PO Box 7646
Philadelphia PA 19101-7646 United States