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The Cone Collection

by Michèle C. Cone
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It is hard to imagine that a collection of 500 Matisses, 100 Picassos and other modern masterpieces could fit the label “Souvenirs of Marvelous Times Abroad.” Yet that is exactly what the show opening at the Jewish Museum this week aims to convey, thanks to a limited number of famous artworks and an abundant display of diaries, postcards, photographs and letters (including one from Matisse), plus a gallery of carpetlike textiles, lace, jewelry and bibelots, accumulated for nearly half a century by the peripatetic Baltimore collectors Etta Cone (1870-1949) and Claribel Cone (1864-1929).

A well-researched chronology in the exhibition catalogue divulges something of the respective tastes and collecting habits of two unusual characters, who were portrayed at different periods of their lives, and in different mediums, by Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein.

Etta, one of 13 children of a first-generation German immigrant couple, started buying art on her own in 1898, having been given $300 to decorate the family apartment in Baltimore. She bought five paintings from the estate of the American impressionist Theodore Robinson. One of them, a good if not bold picture, is included in the show. Claribel, the older sister, was too busy running a salon for intellectuals and medical personalities to share in her younger sister’s artistic interests at that time. Only after visits to Florence and to Paris in the company of their friends Gertrude and Leo Stein did the two sisters hone in on Matisse and Picasso, from whom Etta bought in 1906 quite a few drawings and prints, and an unfinished oil by Matisse titled Yellow Pottery from Provence (1905).

In 1906, the sisters were sidetracked by a trip around the world with their rich brother Moses, the founder of Cone Mills, and his wife Bertha, which yielded them an assortment of tchotchkes acquired en masse in Turkey, India, Italy and other stopping places in their itinerary. At the Jewish Museum, some pieces of lace and some shawls and other textiles never seen in public before are displayed on either side of a long case full of fascinating archival materials. Still another case contains jewelry. For reasons unknown, nothing much happened in terms of art buying until the 1920s, when the sisters’ lengthy trips to Europe resumed, though not always with identical itineraries.

It turns out that it was Etta alone -- during her postwar visits to Paris -- who decided to concentrate on Matisse’s art (though not exclusively). Two- and three-dimensional versions of Matisse’s bare breasted beauties from the '20s, standing or lying down in alluring poses, make up the bulk of the Matisses on view in the exhibition. Matisse’s Reclining Nude from 1935 is the most stylized of them. Small and medium-sized bronzes of females in various poses, including Large Seated Nude (1922/1929) and Two Negresses (1907-08), are beautifully displayed in an off white gray room of their own.

Etta also liked Matisse’s interiors. One of them, Interior, Flowers and Parakeet (1924), is an extraordinary feast of patterns. (Etta, Claribel and Matisse came from families in the textile trade.) A Matisse oil from 1947, Two Girls, Red and Green Background, depicting a young blond woman and a brunette seated at a table in front of a large window wistfully looking out at the viewer, the last Matisse to enter the Cone collection before Etta’s death in 1949, is also on view.

Claribel’s collecting is not so well served by the show. Matisse’s famous androgynous Blue Nude (1907), which she purchased at the Quinn collection auction in 1924, van Gogh's famous Pair of Boots (1887), Cézanne’s Mont Ste Victoire Seen from the Bibemus Quarry (1897), all of them Clarabel’s acquisitions, are not on view. Only Courbet’s somber The Shaded Stream at Le Puit Noir (1860-65), which Claribel signed for in Lausanne on the day of her death in September 1929, is here. The condolence letter from Matisse to Etta is a must read.

Credit for identifying who bought what and when goes to Jewish Museum curator Karen Levitov, who researched the details in the sisters’ account notebooks. Etta’s Paris account book from February 1906 not only pinpoints several of her early purchases, but also reveals the traveler’s odd range of expenses: “Flowers for Gertrude [Stein]’s birthday -- 7 50,” “Cézanne lithograph portfolio -- 51 50,” “Shoes mended, shoes heeled, etc. -- 10,” “Burano lace -- 101.50,” “1 watercolor, 1 drawing. Matisse -- 150.”

Taken out of context, this list reeks of a quasi-surreal turn of mind. “Original,” is how their nephew Edward T. Cone (one of my husband’s favorite relatives) called the sisters, speaking of the day when Claribel opened her umbrella inside Ely cathedral in order to keep bats at bay, and of the years when the sisters’ trunks crossed the Atlantic ocean back and forth without being opened.

Were the sisters, as Levitov suggests, Victorian ladies who collected radical art? Victorian ladies they were in terms of dress code -- long skirts, high-necked ample blouses and exuberant hats, or so it would appear from photos of them in the show. But they were hardly a typical product of their age. Claribel graduated first in her class from medical college and published important scientific papers. The younger one Etta, though more of a homebody, played the piano at near professional level.

As for their lifestyle, it was not defined in the same way that Queen Victoria’s was. No husbands for them, but in Etta’s case, several passionate relationships with women, one of them being Gertrude Stein. The two had first met in Baltimore when they were adolescents. Of Claribel’s love life, nothing has so far emerged. The current view is that her preferred company was her own. At her death, several relatives carefully edited her correspondence.

What the Jewish Museum show underlines is the broad range of the sisters’ curiosity -- of which the collecting of modern art was but one manifestation -- but it cannot convey completely the Cone women’s unstoppable acquisitive fervor. For that we have on a computer display a virtual tour of their three connecting Baltimore apartments chock full of art, even in the bathrooms. It is fair to say that given the amount of art in the Cone collection, many shows on a theme other than “souvenirs from marvelous times abroad” are imaginable.

As for the acquisitions of each of the two sisters, and their respective goals in collecting, it seems that Etta collected works that she loved to contemplate, some of which reflected her sensual admiration for the beautiful female body, a trait that she shared with Matisse, her favorite artist and her friend. Claribel, on the other hand, was less emotionally engaged and more ambitious in her acquisitions. She went straight for the tested work, the masterpiece, possibly at the instigation of Matisse, who let the sisters know the art that had been important to him.

On view is a great Paul Gauguin acquired by Etta after Claribel’s death. From today’s perspective, Etta is the old-fashioned collector, the collector who follows her taste and buys art for her delectation at home. Claribel collects for a place in posterity, and for the glory of the Cone name. It is no surprise that it was Claribel who, before her death, planted the idea that the works the sisters had accumulated be given to a museum. That museum is the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore," May 6-Sept. 25, 2011, at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avednue, New York, N.Y. 10128.

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge, 2001). Her husband is grand-nephew to the Cone sisters.