Modern Art’s Sister Act


‘There were two of them, they were sisters, they were large women, they were rich, they were very different one from the other one.”

This was how American expat writer Gertrude Stein described Claribel and Etta Cone in her short-story word portrait, “Two Women,” about two art-collecting sisters who traveled the world as single ladies of means in the early 20th century.

“Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters,” a new show curated by Karen Levitov at The Jewish Museum, addresses the fantastically rich assortment of modern art that the sisters bought over a 50-year period. It also couches the exhibit in social history, offering an in-depth look at the lives of these two women who were wealthy, never married and maintained friendships with the likes of Gertrude Stein, not to mention Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. It is an engaging portrait of two independent women who were wealthy but were neither trivial with how they spent their funds nor their time.

Information about the sisters has become nearly as intrinsic to their collection of art as the pieces themselves, and researchers continue to speculate on details about the women’s lives; they were not traditional Victorian ladies, to say the least. Claribel was a pathologist, published scientific papers and served for a time as president of the Women’s Medical College in Baltimore, while Etta played music and managed the household. Rumors have swirled about Etta’s possible dalliances with women, including Stein; Claribel’s personal life remains a mystery.

Their father, Herman Cone was born Kahn in Altenstadt, Germany, and immigrated to America in 1846, where he worked in dry goods and grocery. In 1856 he married Helen Guggenheimer and the couple had 13 children: 10 boys and three girls. Claribel was the fifth child, born in 1864, and Etta the ninth, born in 1870. The family moved to Baltimore and lived in Eutaw Place, a posh part of town where they were members of the city’s German Jewish community. The Cones belonged to their local synagogue, and Helen went to services regularly though Judaism was not a central part of their family life.

When Mr. Cone died in 1898, Moses, one of his sons, gave Etta $300 to decorate the family home. With this money she bought five paintings by the American artist Theodore Robinson. After World War I, when the family fortune grew, the art collection grew. Moses and his brother Cesar were textile magnates; they made a large amount of money clothing soldiers and were the main supplier of denim to Levi’s. As a result, the sisters’ wealth grew, too. The Cones owned work by such modern masters as Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso and no other American collection could boast so many examples of Matisse. Their Jewish background did not influence their collecting, though they did own works by Jewish artists like Camille Pissarro, Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani and Jacques Lipchitz. They even bought art by Edgar Degas who is thought to have had anti-Semitic tendencies.

It is difficult to discuss the Cones without bringing up the Steins. Gertrude and Leo Stein, who were also Baltimore-based secular Jews, taught the Cones about art, acting as conduits to their pursuit of knowledge in the fields of design, aesthetics and art history. In Baltimore, Claribel would host weekly parties at her home for local intellectuals, including the Steins. Later in Paris, the Stein siblings would hold similar salons each Saturday night, and their brother Michael held his own gathering a few blocks away, which the Cone sisters would attend. They exchanged Rosh HaShanah cards, and it was the Steins who introduced the sisters to artists such as Picasso and Matisse; the latter referred to them as his “two Baltimore ladies.” The sisters cultivated important relationships with them and bought artwork directly from these and other avant-garde artists as well as from the Steins themselves.

The sisters’ close relationships with great artists are evidenced in this show through the art. In one drawing, Picasso sketched himself dressed in a suit, holding out a top hat. It refers to his love of American comic strips and the fact that Etta sent him newspapers unavailable in Paris. A drawing Picasso made of Claribel is also exhibited. She is sturdy and serious, holding a book. After Claribel died, Etta commissioned Matisse to draw a portrait of her sister, and the artist drew Etta at the same time. He referred to Claribel as “beautiful, possessing a noble and glorious beauty” and Etta as having “the same majesty of a Queen of Israel.” Matisse later kept Etta apprised of his developments on “Large Reclining Nude” from 1935; she bought the work once it was completed. This is documented on the show’s website, which provides this and other additional tidbits of interest.

When Etta bestowed more than 3,000 works of art to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1950, her bequest included paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, plus jewelry, furniture, Oriental rugs and a particularly strong collection of textiles. She also donated the sisters’ personal archives, which included Cone correspondence, personal papers and diaries, newspaper articles and their meticulous records. Many of these items are in a centrally focused room, emphasizing that the objects from their personal lives were an important part of their collecting history.

This darkened area, cordoned off by screens printed with archival photographs of some of their rooms, serves as the heart of this exhibit. Housed inside glass-paneled cabinets are examples of their letters and account-keeping — each sister kept her own — for everything from antiques to shoe repair. The walls are lined with beautiful lace, jewelry and carpets from exotic locales like India and Egypt. While canvases hung on the walls of their adjoining apartments, fine textiles were draped about on lamps, and furniture; it was like living in a Matisse painting. In an interactive computer display, one can tour their apartments virtually to get a feel for how they displayed their vast collection.

Before Claribel died in 1929, she left a will in which she bequeathed her share of the collection to Etta and strongly suggested that Etta donate their art to Baltimore’s museum, “in the event the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore becomes improved.” The Cone sisters held little respect for Baltimoreans’ appreciation of art, and though their outlook was decidedly estranged from that of many of their peers, they felt a sense of connection to the city and remained participants in civic life. Though the Baltimore Museum of Art considers the Cone Collection its crown jewel, had the sisters not felt so attached to the museum and their native city other institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Art Institute of Chicago, and both the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. would happily have taken them. They, among others, actively courted Etta for her riches.

“Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore” runs through Sept. 25 at The Jewish Museum.