The collection of Old Master Paintings and Works of Art formed by Barbara Piasecka Johnson is one of the most remarkable formed in recent times. In the past half century, when so many private collections of Old Master Paintings and sculpture have been dispersed, and when opportunities to buy works of the first quality have become ever more limited, very few great collections have been assembled and perhaps none as large and wide-ranging as hers. It is a collection formed with the eye of a trained art historian but also incorporating a unique and deeply personal aesthetic.
Barbara Piasecka Johnson studied History of Art in Poland and Italy before moving to America in 1968, where she met and married in 1971 her late husband J. Seward Johnson Sr, one of the co-founders of the Johnson and Johnson medical and pharmaceutical firm. Together, their collecting activities were matched by their commitment to the arts and to sponsoring numerous scientific, educational and humanitarian projects around the world. After her husband’s death she moved from Princeton to Monaco and latterly, following her passion for all things related to St Francis, she also spent time in another beautiful home in Assisi, only a stone’s throw from the Basilica of San Francesco, surrounded by one thousand year old olive trees. The collection that she built formed the basis for a number of exhibitions, notably the Opus Sacrum exhibition held at the Royal Castle in Warsaw in 1990, whose success led to a second exhibition in Liechtenstein a year later and to another until recently in the Chapelle de la Visitation in Monaco. Her first Old Master was purchased in 1972 and over the following two decades she became the most significant private collector in the field, acquiring such outstanding works of art as the famous Badminton Cabinet now in the Liechtenstein collections in Vienna, and Andrea Mantegna’s masterpiece, the Descent into Limbo, purchased in 1988 and subsequently sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2003. In 2009, Sotheby’s held a sale of Renaissance and Baroque Masterworks from the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection, which bore eloquent witness to the collection’s nucleus of excellent Renaissance paintings and powerful works of the Italian and Spanish Baroque, including the undisputed masterpiece of Ribera’s terribilità, the great Prometheus .
The sale of 9th July 2014 demonstrates another important aspect of Mrs Piasecka Johnson’s passion as a collector, with three outstanding Italian Renaissance Drawings. The exceptionally rare Botticelli of St Joseph is the only known drawing by the great master remaining in private hands and the only one to have come to the market in over a century, whilst the two extraordinary drapery studies, long associated with the young Leonardo da Vinci, form part of a profoundly important group of sixteen related works produced in the most innovative of all Renaissance workshops, and are the only ones not in in museum collections.
As the Opus Sacrum exhibition - in which many of the works in this catalogue were featured – also showed over two decades ago, one of the great strengths of the Barbara Piasecka Johnson collection is its reflection of the profound significance of the spiritual aspects of the greatest works of art. As John Pope Hennessey wrote in the preface to the exhibition catalogue: ‘What gives this collection so individual a quality is not just tolerance of great religious images, but responsiveness to the message they convey’.
This is nowhere better exemplified than in the Sacrifice of Isaac, the absolute masterpiece of Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, and arguably the greatest Caravaggesque painting to come to the open market in a generation. Here, the tension inherent in the choice between faith and human instinct are presented in a scene of profound psychological drama. It is this spiritual dimension which has always informed the Barbara Piasecka Johnson collection and is the source of its greatest strength, a rare accomplishment indeed in our aggressively secular society let alone in a modern collection. It allows us to reflect upon how painting may still serve to teach us about our religious heritage, and what the great Abbot Suger in the Twelfth Century called ‘ex dilectione decoris domus Dei’ – ‘a love for the beauty of the house of God’.
The proceeds of the sale will benefit The Barbara Piasecka Johnson Foundation, which was founded in 1974 by Mrs. Barbara Piasecka Johnson and her late husband, Mr. J. Seward Johnson, as a section 501(c)(3) non-profit private foundation, focusing on art, medicine and international humanitarian projects. Over the last decade the special focus of the Foundation has been a programme of assistance to individuals with autism and their families developed in close cooperation with the Princeton Child Development Institute, one of the leading organisations dedicated to autism therapy and research in the world. The Foundation has also played a key role in supporting the Institute for Child Development in Gdańsk, Poland, which provides world-class treatment of autism, conducts research, and offers training for therapists, teachers, students, parents and physicians.