Published: June 26, 2012
By any measure, they deserve to be called the Fabulous Cone Sisters. The two adventurous, visionary art collectors from Baltimore, Md., assembled with an open purse and remarkable perspicacity one of the great troves of Modern art †and then donated it to the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection is today the crowning treasure of one of America’s finest art museums.
A traveling exhibition, “Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore,” already seen at New York’s Jewish Museum, is on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery through September 30. Organized by Jewish Museum associate curator Karen Levitov, who authored the accompanying catalog, the exhibition comprises a selection of some 50 paintings, works on paper and sculpture by such Modern masters as Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin, Renoir and van Gogh. They are stars among the 3,000 objects collected over a half century by Dr Claribel and Miss Etta Cone and bequeathed to the Baltimore Museum in 1950. The show offers, as Jewish Museum director Joan Rosenbaum puts it, “great art in a context of fascinating social history&”
The extraordinary, world-class Cone trove was formed at a time when avant-garde art was not widely appreciated or collected. As befits wealthy Victorian-era ladies, they were compulsive buyers on their world travels, also scooping up antiques, textiles, curios and objets d’art from all over the globe that now reside at the Baltimore Museum.
Raised in Baltimore, Claribel (1864‱929), the fifth of 13 children, and Etta (1870‱949), the ninth, came from a family of wealthy German Jewish immigrants. Their father ran a successful wholesale grocery business, but it was their brothers’ flourishing Southern textile mills, which supplied denim to Levi Strauss, that financed their art collecting.
The sisters had contrasting personalities. Claribel, the elder, more dominating figure, was a large, flamboyant, remarkably self-confident woman who earned a medical degree from Woman’s Medical College. Etta, a more retiring homebody with great charm, was a dedicated pianist who managed the family household.
Given funds to decorate the Cone family’s Victorian-style quarters in 1898, Etta astonished everyone by going to New York City and boldly beginning a lifetime of collecting by buying five paintings from the estate of pioneering American Impressionist Theodore Robinson, notably “In the Grove.” The sisters set themselves up in adjacent apartments in the Marlborough Apartments in Baltimore, and the Robinson paintings added considerable verve to their otherwise dark, dated rooms. Over the years, their growing collection was installed on densely packed walls in small rooms crowded with furniture.
Among the Cone sisters’ social crowd were Baltimore newcomers, the Stein siblings, Gertrude and Leo. Gertrude, a highly idiosyncratic figure, went on to become a strikingly original writer and muse of Modernist art at her flat in Paris. The three unconventional women were drawn together by their love of conversation and music. Years later, Gertrude Stein wrote of the sisters, “There were two of them, they were sisters, they were large women, they were rich, they were very different, one from the other one.”
In 1901, 30-year-old Etta made her first trip to Europe, soaking up the artistic wonders of Italy before meeting the Steins in Paris, where they had taken up residence. With their encouragement, Etta immersed herself in the art of the Louvre and purchased Japanese prints.
Two years later, Claribel accompanied Etta in the first of their numerous extended sojourns in Paris. They participated in the city’s expatriate bohemian society, especially at the Steins’ salon, where they met poets, critics, musicians and avant-garde artists.
By the end of 1905, the Cones began to acquire Modernist works in earnest. They purchased art separately and had differing but complementary interests. They bought from dealers, at auctions, from the Steins (a genteel means to provide them financial assistance) and directly from artists.
The sisters visited Matisse in his studio, and Etta soon acquired her first of his works, “Yellow Pottery from Provence,” a vigorously painted Fauvist canvas, which “must have appeared particularly raw and jarring to an early-Twentieth Century viewer,” says Levitov.
This initial purchase of a different kind of still life with representational features created in an avant-garde manner set the stage for the kinds of art the Cone siblings would acquire. The Cones were never attracted to Cubism or abstraction, preferring such traditional subjects as portraits, nudes, still lifes and landscapes. Etta liked portraits and highly decorative works, while, occasionally, Claribel, the more adventurous of the two, bought works considered provocative, even scandalous, like Matisse’s saucy, curvaceous, reclining “Blue Nude” of 1907.
Eventually the Cones acquired 500 works by Matisse, ranging from boldly hued still lifes to languorous Moroccan odalisques. Theirs is considered the most comprehensive Matisse collection in the world.
Gertrude Stein took Etta along to a portrait sitting in a run-down studio in Montmartre, where she met the then-unrecognized Picasso. At the time, the Spaniard was struggling, extremely poor, nearly starving. As art historian and the Cone sisters’ great-grandniece Nancy Ramage observes, “It is a little hard to imagine&⁶ery conservative Victorian ladies in their long dresses, sort of tripping over drawings in this very lowly setting where Picasso lived at the time. They were not so close to Picasso [as to Matisse] perhaps because he was such a Bohemian.”
Nevertheless, over time the sisters acquired 113 Picasso pieces, including three paintings, numerous works on paper and two bronze sculptures. Picasso loved American comic strips, which Etta often sent him. To thank her, he sent her a whimsical, pen and ink self-portrait, “Bonjour Mlle Cone,” doffing his hat as a gesture of politeness to Etta. The artist hoped this would lead to more business, but Etta wrote back that she loved the sketch †and, rather boldly, that Picasso’s girlfriend should massage his bulging tummy to get it back in shape.
Neither sister ever married, although apparently Etta came close. During her stay in Paris in 1905 she caught the eye of American sculptor Mahonri Young, the grandson of Brigham Young, who led the Mormons to Salt Lake City. Although Young asked her to marry him, Etta refused, perhaps because her brothers did not want her to marry a non-Jew. Nevertheless, Etta was saddened a few years later, when Young married artist J. Alden Weir’s daughter.
A 1906 trip around the world, with stops in Constantinople, Athens, Jerusalem, Cairo, Canton and Shanghai, among other cities, “fueled a taste for the exotic,” observes Levitov. Seeking beauty and non-Western intrigue, they collected such objects as Turkish tiles, an Egyptian cat statue, African bracelets and pendants and Asian boxes. Following Matisse’s lead, and reflecting the family’s association with textile manufacturing, the Cones acquired all manner of North African, Turkish, Asian Indian and Russian woven objects, which they draped over every surface in their Baltimore apartments. “Exotic rugs, tapestries and shawls brought a bit of Parisian bohemia to their comfortable Baltimore dwellings and perhaps suggested living within a Matisse painting,” says Levitov.
Etta’s favorite Matisse, “Interior, Flowers and Parakeets,” portrays his exotically decorated Nice apartment. Visitors always remarked on the artist’s parakeets, whether they were caged or on occasions when he allowed them to fly around his place. Etta was drawn to this work and Matisse’s odalisques by the profusion of colors, patterns and intriguing textiles. An oil, “Standing Odalisque Reflected in a Mirror,” and a lithograph, “Large Odalisque with Striped Pantaloons,” for example, show elongated concubines, nude from the waist up, languorously posed against overlapping, patterned backdrops.
The Cones bought many of Matisse’s exotic nudes in all media, highlighted by such unforgettable masterpieces as the bronze “Large Seated Nude,” 1922‱929, and such oils as the extraordinary, radical “Large Reclining Nude,” 1935, which hung opposite the other in Claribel’s apartment. The latter, a languorous nude lounging on a bold checkerboard pattern, is the highlight of the Cone collection.
World War I interrupted the Cones’ art-buying, but by 1922, with the family textile business booming and their incomes increased, the sisters resumed the chase †in spades. In 1929, Claribel’s death at age 64 deeply affected Etta, who vowed to continue their quest.
Picasso’s somber masterpiece, “Woman with Bangs,” 1902, reflected Etta’s mood when she bought it from Gertrude Stein soon after her sister’s death. It was painted during the artist’s early struggles †his Blue Period †when he was living amidst poverty, prostitution and the death of close friends.
Visiting Baltimore in 1930, Matisse expressed delight at seeing so many of his works in Etta’s apartment; Etta called him a man of “fine chivalrous quality.” It seems likely that his discussions about artists who inspired his work prompted Etta to acquire paintings by such French predecessors as Cezanne, Courbet, Delacroix, Gauguin, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley and van Gogh. Particularly noteworthy are Cezanne’s evocation of Mont Saint-Victoire, Gauguin’s portrait of his lovely Tahitian mistress and a rich, colorful van Gogh landscape.
In the two decades after Claribel’s death, Etta continued to buy Matisses and Picassos, while adding works by such newcomers as Braque, Cassatt, Degas, Morisot, Chagall, de Chirico and Modigliani.
Often overlooked is a small trove of works by Americans: Patrick Henry Bruce, John Graham, Leon Kroll, Jacques Lipchitz, John Marin and Max Weber are represented in the collection by strong, interesting paintings. Surprisingly, none of the artists linked to Matisse †such as Milton Avery †or championed by Gertrude Stein †Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Alfred Maurer †made it into the collection.
Devoted to Matisse to the end, Etta purchased his “Two Girls, Red and Green Background” in 1949, the year she died. Painted just after the end of World War II, it combines the artist’s characteristic broad forms and bold colors with a certain lightness and abstraction in portraying two young women who might be youthful Claribel and Etta Cone.
When Etta completed and distributed a catalog of the collection in 1934, she was flooded with requests to see the trove, as well as proposals from museums to acquire it. Claribel’s will bequeathed her artworks to Etta, with the suggestion that the entire collection eventually go to the Baltimore Museum of Art, “in the event the spirit of appreciation for Modern art in Baltimore becomes improved.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art was mentioned as a fallback.
When she died in 1949, Etta left the whole collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, with the exception of some Matisse prints and bronzes and works on paper by other Modernists that went to Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, near the family textile mills and retreat at Blowing Rock.
These remarkably astute and visionary sisters, building on their friendships with early avant-garde artists and ignoring naysayers, assembled a collection of Modernist art that is the envy of every museum in the world. As his grandson recalls, Matisse once said, “It took a lot of gall to paint these things, but it took much more to buy them.”
The 80-page catalog, with an excellent essay by curator Levitov, is filled with plates of Cone Collection artworks and vintage photographs. Co-published by the Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, it sells for $20, hardcover.
The Vancouver Art Gallery is at 75 Hornby Street. For information, 604-662-4719 or www.vanartgallery.bc.ca .
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