R.S. Johnson International Gallery Inc.

Old master paintings and drawings, great works of popular modern artists, and other museum quality paintings require an international “conduit” into obtaining said pieces.

The R.S. Johnson International Gallery in Chicago has cornered the market for purchasing works from historic, world-renowned artists who have transcended time to enhance museums and individuals’ spaces.

R. Stanley Johnson and his wife Ursula lived in Europe for several years before coming to Chicago. Johnson studied art and the history in Vienna, Austria, and at the Institute of Art and Archaeology Sorbonne-Paris.

In 1955, Stanley’s father, S.E. Johnson, established the commercial fine art gallery, stateside. As Stanley and Ursula were overseas honing their art history background, his father asked him to help him with the Chicago gallery by buying selected works.

He would become increasingly involved with the gallery, including purchasing works for exhibitions back in Chicago (Stanley met with Jean Cocteau over tea and acquired his works, and met once with the modern artist Giorgio DeChirico for another acquisition).

In late 1967, his father passed. Stanley and his wife Ursula came to Chicago and started running the gallery, after acquiring the business from his mother.

“I had considered myself an eternal student,” Johnson says of the new role that had materialized upon him. “I didn’t consider myself a business person or someone running an art gallery; it was a very sudden and shocking death of my father that sent me back to the United States.”

The gallery was a significant dealer in the business, and it started to make even more of a serious footprint on the international art community.

In the last 10 years, R.S. Johnson International Gallery has sold to 55 different museums worldwide, including those in Great Britain, France, Japan, and Germany, to name a few.

Johnson says he has learned that the business does change quite a bit. But there is an aspect of R.S. Johnson International Gallery that separates them from the rest.

“One thing that is so special about our gallery is that we own our inventory. We go out and buy everything that we offer (to subsequently sell). As we move into the 20th century, there would be a tendency for the works to be less rare as the decades go along, than the earlier decades. And since we’re buying (works) outright, we would go toward (works) which may be rare. So that would be the general tendency of the gallery.”

Johnson and the staff at the gallery do have a delicate balance of the genres that they seek to purchase.

“We have to be very careful with the categories in which we are involved; those categories have to be works which are beautiful, by artists with an important history of art, and works also which have a certain degree of rareness.”

He says that “rareness” enters the picture in many avenues. “We would love to be dealing in old master paintings also old master drawings, but we feel those are ‘false art-dealing categories.’ And, that they consist of about 200 dealers with ‘pseudo British-accent-selling masterpieces.’ But in paintings there may be, perhaps, five first-class old master paintings which crisscross the art market every year at this time—and, the (gallery) museums out there with $150 million to spend on them.”

Johnson added the result is that what are available are “third” and “fourth rate” old master paintings and drawings.

Pablo Picasso, Malaga 1881-1973 Mougins. Femme au chapeau à fleurs, 1962, Woman with a Flowered Hat. Linocut: edition of 50 350 x 275 mm; 13 3/4 x 10 3/4 inches, Signed and numbered.

“Therefore, the whole category is sort of ‘out of bounds’ for us, since we don’t want to own things (works) which are subject to changes in economic conditions, changes in public ‘decent’ fashion, which are not ‘rare’ and put us in a very risky situation—which, we don’t really particularly care for.”

He says that they are buying for the gallery, and more importantly, they are collectors.

“We feel a great art dealer would have to be a great collector, because if the dealer truly appreciated, understood, and loved the works with which he or she was dealing, from time to time that individual would, in fact, acquire something for himself or herself.

“And then one would bring together a great art collection—you’re talking about just a few art dealers who have done that over the decades,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s own gallery collection can be limited by the interest in different categories. The category of old master paintings and drawings can limit a dealer’s involvement with a particular client or group at times.

“You have old master drawings by all sorts of artists that no one ever heard about 10, 20 years ago, and suddenly became the ‘masters’ of old master times. But the (known) master’s names don’t change—they’re still Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and so on. So, if we were going to collect old master paintings and drawings, those are the artists that we’d want to collect.”

Johnson added that certain works from the aforementioned greats, can be no longer be available, at times, so his gallery collects old master prints, including etchings by Rembrandt and engravings by Albrecht Durer.

“That to us is an extremely interesting category,” Johnson says confidently. “I can add to that, the names of Goya, and Piranesi and Picasso. Pablo Picasso is among the great printmakers in history of Western Art.”

Johnson spent years living in France, and as one who speaks fluent French, the gallery has benefited, obtaining more available French works than Germanic or Italian, or Spanish.

But the paintings and prints from the audacious Spanish great have been prized by the gallery.

“We have also done a lot of exhibitions involving Picasso. I didn’t know Picasso very well, but I dealt with his dealer(s); it was Daniel Kahnweiler.”

Kahnweiler was Pablo Picasso’s art dealer from 1909 through the rest of the century.

“One of the great experiences with Picasso was in 1970, when Kahnweiler had 120 drawings, watercolors and pastels by Picasso for sale. He was offering them to nine dealers in the world: one was Mrs. Saidenberg, at the Saidenberg Gallery in New York, another was myself, Beyeler, and Berggruen in Paris. So that was a very exciting thing to have a choice of 120 Picassos.

“I arrived very early for that choice, and I told Mr. Kahnweiler, ‘It’s a wonderful chance to buy Picassos,’” Johnson said.

Stanley continued to display his combination of professionalism and affability with repartee. He was listed as the “ninth” dealer list present—and he’d have to choose last.

“Since I’m the ninth of the nine dealers—and since each one would take five (works)—
before I had my choice, the 40 best drawings would be gone. Therefore, I’d have a choice of ‘only 80’ Picasso drawings, watercolors and pastels (at the time this was a dilemma because Picasso was turning out dozens of works of great quantity, rapidly).

Stanley turned the charm on before the first dealers’ selections and continued to converse in French with Kahnweiler:

“You know, it would be wonderful if someone could go in and take any drawing they wanted,” the young Johnson said with tactful bravado.

“Look, Mr. Johnson,” Kahnweiler said inconspicuously. “If it’s that important to you, go ahead; go in there and take any drawing you want. Don’t leave the drawing in the room. Put it behind my desk in my office, and when your first choice comes, you take four instead of five. But you must promise me two things: one, you will never sell that drawing, and two (suddenly he spoke in English), every time you look at that work you have to say, ‘What a great guy Kahnweiler was.’”

“We’ve kept that (piece) through the years and decades,” Johnson says.

The gallery also has done exhibitions for modern works considered important in Western Art including, Mary Cassat, John Steuart Curry and graphic works by Thomas Hart Benton. “We think those three artists are very important artists. There may be more recent ones, perhaps, not so important.”

The R.S. Johnson International Gallery, of course, will have many old master works, prints, and a multitude of other fine works to peruse and choose—except for one, at the request of Mr. Kahnweiler.