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Art exhibition honoring late philanthropist leaves positive ‘Impression’

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published August 13, 2019

 Mary Wilson, of Grosse Pointe Shores, stands in front of the Claude Monet painting “Towpath at Argenteuil, Winter, 1875-76,” now on display at the Detroit Institute  of Arts.

Mary Wilson, of Grosse Pointe Shores, stands in front of the Claude Monet painting “Towpath at Argenteuil, Winter, 1875-76,” now on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

DETROIT — He owned a lakefront home in Grosse Pointe Shores and an NFL team, but businessman and philanthropist Ralph Wilson wasn’t some flashy billionaire.

“He wasn’t about cocktail parties,” said his widow, Mary Wilson, of her late husband, who died in 2014 at the age of 95. “He loved tennis and business and being around somebody who wanted to talk. For him, the joy was just in the simple life.”

That everyman quality gave rise to the name of a special art exhibition in Ralph Wilson’s honor. To celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday on Oct. 17, 2018, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation collaborated on “Humble and Human: Impressionist Era Treasures from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Detroit Institute of Arts, an Exhibition in Honor of Ralph C. Wilson.”

After being on display for several months at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, the exhibition has moved to the DIA, where it’s on view through Jan. 5, 2020.

A small but impactful exhibition, “Humble and Human” features 44 works by artists including Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Paul Cézanne and Ralph Wilson’s favorite artist, Claude Monet. Several works are on view in Detroit for the first time, as the exhibition includes works from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

“The impressionist galleries at the DIA have never looked this beautiful,” said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons. “This is a collaboration between two great museums … to bring their great impressionist collections together for the enjoyment of the community.”

Mary Wilson, of Grosse Pointe Shores, said she and her late husband were regular visitors to the DIA.

Her husband “fell in love” with the work of French impressionist Monet after visiting the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in the 1980s, so Ralph Wilson was drawn to “Rounded Flower Bed (Corbeille de fleurs),” an 1876 oil by Monet in the DIA’s permanent collection.

“He’d go straight to the Monet, look at it, and then we’d leave,” Mary Wilson said with a laugh.

Going to the museum solely to bask in the glory of one of its finest masterpieces makes perfect sense to Salort-Pons.

“Certainly, going to the DIA just to see our Monet was a good choice,” he said. “(Ralph Wilson) said he didn’t know a lot about art … but he did. He understood the language of artists.”

Most of the paintings Wilson owned were by artists he admired, said attorney Eugene Driker, a Wilson Foundation life trustee.

“He was not an expert in art, (but) he was someone who had great taste,” Driker said. “He appreciated quality.”

The impressionist paintings Wilson owned aren’t part of this exhibition — they were auctioned off after his death to raise money for his foundation. But, his art holdings did include Alfred Sisley’s “The Banks of the Loing,” Édouard Manet’s “Young Woman Among the Flowers” and two Monet paintings — “Antibes, View of the Notre-Dame Plateau” and “The Seine at Argenteuil.”

“He was a tremendous art patron … even though he didn’t know art,” said David Egner, president and CEO of the Wilson Foundation. “He just loved some pieces.”

Jill Shaw, the DIA’s Rebecca A. Boylan and Thomas W. Sidlik curator of European art, 1850-1970, and a co-curator of “Humble and Human,” said that the impressionist and post-impressionist collections at the DIA and the Albright-Knox “are wonderfully complementary.” Co-curator Holly Hughes, the Godin-Spaulding curator for the collection at the Albright-Knox, concurred, saying that Buffalo and metro Detroit “have benefited substantially from the philanthropy of Ralph C. Wilson (and) his foundation.”

Shaw said the galleries reflect Wilson’s passion for Monet, landscapes and water scenes, as well as athletics, hard work and everyday life.

“We thought about Mr. Wilson constantly throughout this exhibition,” she said.

In the artists he loved, Shaw said, Wilson might have seen something of himself.

“They were experimenters, innovators, risk takers — just like Mr. Wilson,” she said.

Egner said Ralph Wilson “was successful in 11 industries,” and the foundation has tried to pay tribute to his legacy by embracing likewise diverse community initiatives in metro Detroit and Buffalo, from skateboard parks to senior services.

Ralph Wilson famously founded and owned the Buffalo Bills professional football franchise. They competed in four Super Bowls during his lifetime, but never won one.

“I feel like he’s at a Super Bowl here,” Mary Wilson said. “These two great teams, these two great museums, working together — he’s winning this Super Bowl.”

Admission to “Humble and Human” is free with regular DIA admission, which means it’s free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. The DIA is located at 5200 Woodward Ave. in midtown. For more information, call (313) 833-7900 or visit