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Though many people consider themselves collectors — whether it’s postcards or books or stamps — there are few collections that rival the acquisitions of Claribel and Etta Cone. The Cone sisters, natives of Baltimore, were collectors of some of the greatest and most innovative art of their time. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, they acquired 3,000 pieces, including the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of works by Henri Matisse.
A sampling of their impressive collection is now on display at the Jewish Museum in New York. The exhibit, Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, features more than 50 pieces of art on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the sisters bequeathed the entirety of their collection.
Karen Levitov, associate curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, and Katy Rothkopf, senior curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, recently joined NPR’s Susan Stamberg to talk about the sisters and their remarkable collection.
Like their collection, the Cone sisters were extraordinary for their time. The eldest, Claribel, was one of the country’s first female doctors, says Rothkopf. Etta — a woman who was known for her warmth and generosity — was responsible for beginning their collection and contributing the majority of its pieces.
When Etta made the sisters’ first art purchases in 1898, the pair never intended to give the collection to a museum. Rothkopf says the sisters originally began their collection for simply aesthetic reasons, “Early on, I think it was to decorate their apartments,” she says.
But what began as ornamentation quickly became a passion. The sisters’ interest in art grew after they met Gertrude and Leo Stein, who were studying at Johns Hopkins University in the 1890s. The pair of siblings struck up a friendship and began to travel together. In fact, it was while the sisters were in Paris with the Steins in 1905 that they first encountered the work of Henri Matisse at the Salon D’Automne.
At the time, Matisse’s use of vibrant and unnatural color created a stir in the art world, says Rothkopf. Many people, including the Cone sisters, were shocked by his unorthodox style. “At first, the Cones … really found [the art] quite scary,” she says.
But after the Steins began to purchase his work, the Cone sisters visited Matisse’s studio and warmed to his artistic style. It helped that Matisse was a “proper” gentleman, and the Cones found that they could relate to him, Rothkopf explains. “He was their kind of people. They liked him, and so his paintings and drawings and sculptures started to appeal more.” Soon they were regularly buying Matisse’s art.
The sisters were also interested in other experimental painters of the time, including Pablo Picasso. Gertrude Stein introduced Etta to the painter in 1905, and by the end of their collecting career, the sisters had purchased more than 100 pieces of his work.
Though they were quite fond of Picasso, the Cone sisters could never fully accept his radical ways. “They found [Picasso’s] lifestyle a little more shocking,” says Rothkopf. “I think they felt a little more comfortable with Matisse. He was a proper gentleman, married with a family, wore three-piece suits — he was very clean and well put together.”
Over the years, their collection increased along with their interest in art. “The photographs of their apartment show that there’s art just floor to ceiling, wall to wall,” says Levitov.
Eventually, the collection became so large that it overtook their homes. “Claribel’s collection became so large that she, in fact, rented another apartment in the building,” says Rothkopf. “She gave over her apartment just to what she called her museum.”
Amassing a collection of this size was undoubtedly a pricey hobby, and the Cone sisters were fortunate to come from a wealthy family of textile industry entrepreneurs. Their two eldest brothers and their father opened the lucrative Cone Mills in North Carolina, which became the main supplier of denim during World War I. After the family’s wartime success, it became even easier for the sisters to continue their collection. “There was much more money to spend on works of art and baubles and fabrics and all kinds of wonderful things,” says Rothkopf.
The money allowed them to travel all over the world — and collect art along the way. “Many of the purchases they made were souvenirs of this amazing time they were spending out of the country,” says Rothkopf. While many travelers bring home postcards or trinkets from their adventures, the Cone sisters brought home some of the greatest art of the time.
Perhaps as remarkable as their collection were the close relationships the sisters fostered with some of the most famous artists of their day. Levitov says the painting she has grown the most attached to from the sisters’ collection is Matisse’s 1935 Large Reclining Nude — in part because Etta played an active role in its creation. “While he was painting it, Matisse had it photographed and sent 22 photographs to Etta Cone in Baltimore,” she says. “So she got to be involved in the process and see it in its different stages.”
Additionally, Etta commissioned Matisse to paint a portrait of Claribel after her death, Levitov says. What she received was four drawings of Claribel and six of Etta, which Matisse gave as a gift to the sisters who had been such strong supporters of his work.
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