"She said, 'You know, there's a wonderful Bonvin drawing for sale at a London gallery,' and I said, 'Really?' "
So he went to the gallery with his wife, Yvonne, to see "The Old Beggar," an 1853 work showing a downtrodden man gazing at his shadow.
They promptly bought it. "It was all because of my mother," said Weisberg, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. So: Listen to your mommy!"
That was the start of an art-collecting journey that has amassed more than 200 works. Nearly a third of those are now on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which the Weisbergs intend as the permanent home for their collection.
The 62 paintings and drawings in "Reflections on Reality: Drawings and Paintings From the Weisberg Collection" — which the couple have either given or promised to the museum — focus on portraiture, landscape and the marginalized. Roughly dating from 1830 to 1900, many of the works have a muted or darker tone — a stark contrast to the better-known bright palettes of Impressionism. (A second round from the collection, focusing on 1900-1930, will go on display early next year.)
In Charles Milcendeau's "Women and Children at Ouessant" (1898), the wives and children of fishermen gather after a storm, hoping their men return. Louise Catherine Breslau's "The Study of Drawing: Portrait of Yves Österlind, Age Nine" (1901) portrays a boy with thick blond bangs staring placidly at the artist. And in Jules Adler's "Vagabond Seated in a Field" (circa 1900-09), a guy lounges, passing the time.
"Right now, people are rethinking museums and their functions — what the art should be presenting, and what the stories are that should be told," said Mia curator Tom Rassieur. "The people who are marginalized. The little guy. And standing up for people. These artists [in the Weisberg show] were thinking along parallel lines of what we are thinking about today."
Jean Béraud's "The Mad Writer, Study for 'Les Fous'" (1885) shows a bearded guy standing in profile, his pocket overflowing with pages. (He may have been a writer, but he may also have just been a patient at the local psych ward.) Georges Paul Leroux's color lithograph "Exposition Universelle — Palais de l'Optique La Grande lunette de 1900," shown with an accompanying study, became the poster for the 1900 Paris World's Fair.
A journey in collecting
The Weisbergs first met on a ship from New York to Europe in 1966.
Gabriel, who grew up in New York City, was headed to France to work on his dissertation about the famous art critic Philippe Burty. Yvonne was sailing home to Switzerland after a year on Canada's west coast. They spent the trip together, arrived in Paris, and the rest was history.
Weisberg's career took him to universities in New Mexico and Cincinnati, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982. Three years later he landed at the University of Minnesota.
Together, the couple authored "The Realist Debate: A Bibliography of Realist Painting," and spent more than 50 years diving through flea markets in Paris and art dealers' backrooms in pursuit of Realist and Naturalist works by French and Belgian artists.
Much of the work in this exhibition is reminiscent of Depression-era artists in the United States who were portraying the plight of the working class rather than the fancy lives of aristocrats.
It's a period of art history that Weisberg hopes will become better known in the States.
"These drawings relate to the people — this is a people's collection," he said. "The themes here are about life, about human existence — and not human existence of the upper class, or those who have got a lot of money."
Reflections on Reality: Drawings From the Weisberg Collection
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri.-Sun. & Tue.-Wed., 10-9 Thu. through Feb. 19.
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S.
Info: artsmia.org or 612-870-3000.