Claribel Cone and Etta Cone were two sisters from Baltimore who lived lives that confounded expectation. An outstanding exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York, charts the unconventional lives of these extraordinary women. Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore displays a choice selection of their great art collection, demonstrating the important role that the Cone sisters played in the cultural life of the United States.
The Cone sisters were born to a German-Jewish family in Victorian-era America. Jewish women in that age, particularly in a family like the Cones who initially lived in the southern states of the U.S., were expected to devote themselves to the realm of family and religion. Claribel Cone, born in 1864, and Etta Cone, born six years later, certainly maintained the ties of their large and loving family. But the strong-willed Claribel, who earned a medical degree in 1890, then a very rare accomplishment for women, and Etta found a way to assert themselves as quiet revolutionaries in the cause of modern art.
It was the more domestically-inclined Etta who initiated the creation of the Cone art collection in 1898. In that year, her brother Moses gave her $300 to renovate the family home in Baltimore. Moses Cone was a pioneering industrialist, who along with his brother Ceasar, built the Cone Export and Commission Company, based in North Carolina, into one of the leading textile firms in the United States. The Cone’s company specialized in producing work clothes, eventually becoming the leading supplier of denim to Levi Strauss. Etta, at age 28, was well on her way to being a Victorian maiden aunt, dutiful and dedicated to hearth and home. She was the perfect family member to buy new curtains, carpets and other accessories for the Cone residence at Eutaw Place in Baltimore.
Instead, Etta bought five paintings by the American Impressionist painter, Theodore Robinson.
In 1898, works by the French Impressionist masters were only beginning to be accepted in the United States. Etta’s selection of Robinson’s In the Grove, painted around 1888, was therefore a shock on two counts. It was not merely an act of self-assertion on Etta’s part. While Robinson’s depiction of a pensive young woman in a sylvan setting hardly seems revolutionary today, his painting marked a significant moment of transition in the American art scene. During the 1890’s, wealthy Americans like Henry Frick were buying Rembrandts by the cart-load. Contemporary American painters, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and other others had largely retreated into private work. The cachet of European Old Master art in Gilded Age America reigned supreme. Robinson, who had died tragically young in 1896, and fellow American Impressionists were fighting — or so it seemed — a losing battle in trying to assert the values of modern art in the United States. Actually, the tide had begun to turn and Etta Cone was one of the first to take advantage of this cultural shift.
The profits from the family textile business enabled Moses and Ceasar Cone to provide a modest allowance to both Claribel and Etta, insuring their financial independence. By 1900, Dr. Claribel Cone was a highly regarded pathologist, undertaking major research projects in Germany, as well as the United States. Her work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore brought her into contact with an aspiring medical student named Gertrude Stein. As events were to show, Gertrude Stein’s future lay in the realm of the arts, not the sciences.
In 1901, Claribel and Etta took the first of many trips to Europe. The two sisters engaged in two of their favorite pursuits, visiting art museums and shopping for exquisite laces and other textiles, as well as small objects d’art. Where their limited funds allowed, they also purchased Japanese prints. Their guide during their early visits to Europe was Leo Stein, brother to Gertrude. In his company, they studied “many beautiful Botticelli’s, Ghirlandajo’s, Andrea de Sarto, Titian, etc. etc,” as Etta noted in her travel diary, which is on display in the exhibition.
Their education in the Old Masters was an important factor in the way that the Cone sisters later approached art collecting. They would purchase paintings, sketches and sculptures by the major players in the avant-garde revolt against academic art. But the works that they bought always conformed to the essential canons of Western art, however radical the technique used to create them. Apart from one Picasso watercolor sketch in the mode of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the Cones did not collect Cubist works. Nor did they buy any art by Abstract or Surrealist artists.
In 1905, now in the company of Gertrude Stein, these otherwise conventional ladies from Baltimore confronted the “shocking” rebellion of artists deemed the “New Barbarians” and “Fauves” or wild beasts. They visited the 1905 Salon d’Automne, the pivotal exhibition when the new art and “old guard” criticism dramatically crossed swords. Henri Matisse was particularly targeted for abuse.
“We asked ourselves are these things to be taken seriously,” Claribel later noted. But when the Steins bought a work by Matisse, Etta followed suit, purchasing Yellow Pottery from Provence, a bold, vigorous still life.
Later that year, Etta visited the studio of Pablo Picasso, accompanied by Gertrude Stein. She purchased several sketches which whetted Picasso’s appetite for further sales. In 1907, he created a humorous sketch of himself, hat in hand, for Gertrude Stein to send to Etta, now back in America.
If Picasso hoped for a quick sale, he and Matisse were to go many years before the Cone sisters opened their capacious hand bags to make another art purchase. Moses Cone died in 1908, leaving a grieving Etta with more family duties to perform. Claribel devoted increasing periods of her time to medical research, much of it in Germany. She was marooned there in 1914 when war broke out and the British naval blockade prevented her returning by trans-Atlantic travel. Never one to allow even a major war from altering her plans, Claribel refused to leave Germany, even via Switzerland, when the United States declared war in 1917.
Reunited with her family after the end of the war in 1918, Claribel now joined with Etta in their second and major round of art acquisitions. In 1922, the Cone sisters returned to Europe with ample funds provided by the huge profits the family company had made during the war. Though the sisters bought widely, including Claribel’s expenditure in 1925 of $18,860 for Paul Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry, their artist of choice was Henri Matisse.
The particular appeal of Matisse’s art for the Cones can be traced to several sources. Matisse always revered Cezanne and, despite the controversial aspects of his painting techniques, he always remained true to the twin foundations of Western art, color and design. His 1922 oil, Painter in the Olive Grove, might well be a depiction of Cezanne painting Mont Sainte-Victoire from the cover of a grove of trees. But more importantly, in this painting, Matisse achieves the same effect that he appreciated in Cezanne’s approach to art. Here, the landscape surrounding the artist evokes a visceral “feel” of the climate and topography of the south of France. The “inherent truth” of the scene is “disengaged from the outward appearance of the object to be represented” as Matisse would later write in an essay about Cezanne.
However, both Matisse and the Cone sisters loved the “outward appearance” of objects, particularly hand-woven textiles. The myriad ways in which fabrics can transform a physical environment or a person’s physique appealed to the French painter and his patrons from Baltimore. Matisse was born in the town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis in northern France, a region that had been prominent in textile production as far back as the Middle Ages. He was the son and grandson of weavers. And of course, the Cone sisters’ disposable income for art purchases came from the cotton mills established by their brothers in North Carolina. Matisse and the Cones were kindred spirits in the love of beautiful cloth.
During the 1920’s, Matisse hearkened back to the harem paintings of Ingres, Delacroix and other painters of the 19th century Romantic tradition. In his Seated Odalisque, painted in 1928, Matisse can be seen moving beyond the erotic appeal of the semi-clothed women of 19th century Odalisque paintings. In this work, Matisse evoked an amazing degree of sensuousness from the odalisque’s exotic clothing and the draperies, carpets and wall hangings that surround her in a dazzling riot of color. Even when he painted his odalisque models in various stages of undress, as in Large Odalisque with Striped Pantaloons, the emotional charge of the clothed part of the body exceeds that of the unclad.
Delight with intricate pattern or display of sumptuous color can never satisfy a true artist or art lover for long. There is always something more, something beyond or below the surface of what we perceive. For Matisse, sculpture was a primary means to come to terms with the human body underneath the exotic garb. A keen student of Auguste Rodin, Matisse sculpted numerous small figural studies to help him comprehend key aspects in the delineation of the human form. These figures were then cast in bronze.
The Cone sisters collected these bronzes with remarkable zeal, sometimes buying duplicate castings which were kept at their family’s summer home, Blowing Rock, in the hill country of North Carolina. After Etta’s death, six of these second casts, along with sixty-seven Matisse prints and prints and drawings by Pablo Picasso, Felix Valloton and other modern artists, were bequeathed to the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.
The remarkable affinity of Matisse for “my two Baltimore ladies,” as he called the Cone sisters, is particularly apparent in a comparison of his 1924 oil, Interior, Flowers and Parakeets with a photo taken in 1941 of the display of Claribel’s treasures in the front room of her apartment in Baltimore. In each space, Matisse’s picture plane and Dr. Claribel’s room, there is a brilliant articulation of shapes and colors that not even the black and white nature of the photo can obscure. The Cone sisters’ use of the art they purchased, making it a part of their daily environment, was as brilliant in its way as the vision and technique of the French artist whose work they so loved.
By 1941, Dr. Claribel Cone had been dead for nearly twelve years. Her death in 1929 shocked Etta to a degree that is best understood by a painting in the Cone Collection from Picasso’s mournful Blue Period. There is some debate whether Picasso’s Woman with Bangs, was purchased by Etta as an expression of her grief or whether the painting, already in her collection, served as talisman of her emotional loss. Whatever the case, Etta lovingly preserved her sister’s rooms, placing fresh flowers, as if in expectation that Claribel would return.
Claribel had been moved by a premonition of her death to recommend to Etta that their joint collection be donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art “in the event the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore becomes improved.” It was a perceptive observation. Baltimore during the 1920’s, like much of America in the age of “Main Street,” held modern art in low regard.
Etta set out to correct this state of affairs. In an impressive display of art scholarship, she wrote an illustrated catalog of the Cone Collection which suddenly placed Baltimore in the front ranks of the American art scene. She continued to purchase major works by artists like Paul Gauguin who had not been previously included in the collection, thus making it representative of the overall course of modern art.
And she continued to buy works by Matisse. Claribel’s death affected him profoundly and he visited Etta in Baltimore in 1930 to express his sympathy. A charming 1934 photo of him resting in his apartment shows Matisse with a portrait sketch of Etta on an easel, one of a pair with a similar drawing he had done of Claribel. But behind him is a major work, Interior with Dog, which Etta purchased. A compassionate human being and an artist of great sensitivity, Matisse was also an astute businessman. He knew the kind of art that Etta valued and made concerted efforts to enable her to buy it.
This was notably the case with one of the signature paintings in the Cone Collection, one that is included in the exhibition at the Jewish Museum. This is Large Reclining Nude, painted in 1935. Matisse took an elaborate series of photos of the various stages or states of composition, which he sent to Etta. Beginning with a naturalistic depiction of a nude woman, Matisse evolved a new incarnation of the body, more of a symbolic presence of a body and spirit at rest.
Etta bought Large Reclining Nude and placed it in Claribel’s apartment.
Etta Cone died on August 31, 1949, having bought her final painting by Matisse five months before. Modern art was indeed appreciated in Baltimore by 1949 and she bequeathed the collection that she and her sister had amassed to the Baltimore Museum of Art, along with $400,000 to build a new wing to the museum which opened in 1957.
This was the culminating act of vision and generosity of Matisse’s “Baltimore Ladies.” Matisse was indebted to them for their patronage, as are art lovers fortunate enough to visit the wonderful exhibition at the Jewish Museum or to journey to Baltimore. But there was something more to the achievement of these two sisters, a lifework of encouraging human empathy by sharing works of beauty.
Claribel and Etta Cone made collecting art an act of friendship, making acts of friendship into a work of art.
Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore appears at The Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, New York NY (May 6 – September 25, 2011)
The exhibition travels to the Vancouver Art Gallery, June 2 – September 23, 2012.