Matisse on the Chesapeake

Baltimore Glimpses

January 12, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

THIS story begins in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York the day its spectacular Matisse retrospective opened last September. It reels backward to Oakland, Calif., and to Baltimore in 1898. It then moves forward to Paris in 1905.

And then back once more -- to Baltimore the afternoon of Dec. 17, 1930.

Before its end, the story interconnects homes and streets in Baltimore with the lives of Gertrude Stein (she of the Lost Generation); her brother Leo; two wealthy Baltimore sisters and art patrons, Etta and Claribel Cone (who collected in their Eutaw Place apartment the works of, among other artists, Henri Matisse); and the French painter himself.

New York, January 1993: Hundreds of thousands of art lovers -- from around the country, around the world -- are taking in the show. It is massive, exhibiting more than 400 of Matisse's works. Visitors are made aware that some of them are on loan from the Cone Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "Even a patron as supportive as Leo Stein could declare that one of Matisse's pictures was a 'thing brilliant and powerful but the nastiest smear of paint I have ever seen,' " says the brochure describing the MOMA Matisse show.

Oakland, 1898: Nineteen-year-old Leo Stein and his 17-year-old sister are orphaned. They are sent to Baltimore to be near friends of their family. Stein brother and sister live on Biddle Street and are introduced to Etta and Claribel Cone, living on Eutaw Place (in the Marlborough Apartments).

Under the influence of the Steins, particularly of Leo, the wealthy sisters become deeply involved with artists, writers, musicians and scientists. Largely under Leo's influence, the Steins and the Cone sisters begin to collect art.

Paris, 1905: Etta and Claribel Cone, enthused with their new-found interest in collecting art and at the invitation of the Steins, are in Paris. They visit the Paris Salon d'Automne. At the salon, startling new works are on display, among them the works of the then avant-garde Henri Matisse. The Cone sisters, at the urging of Leo Stein, begin to buy the works of Matisse. Over the years they buy many more, hanging them in their Eutaw Place apartment. When the sisters die, they leave the collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where it is now housed in the Cone Wing.

Baltimore, Dec. 17, 1930: Matisse, now 61 and famous, visits Baltimore to spend some time with his old friend and early patron, Etta Cone (Claribel has died in 1929). A. D. Emmart, then art critic of The Sun, interviews him at the Cone apartment.

"I am not a prophet," Matisse says, sitting in a chair against a background of his own paintings and responding to Emmart's question about what change might yet be in store for modern artists. Emmart describes Matisse as a small man with an air of serenity about him.

Matisse tells Emmart that contemporary art is in a state of "normal growth" and predicts that modernism will be the significant movement of the 1930s. America impresses Matisse, Emmart writes. The artist likes its variety and "the quality of its light." He says America should develop a school of painting on its own.

The next day a reporter meets Matisse at the train station (we don't know which one) as he is leaving. The reporter asks Matisse how Baltimore impresses him. "Baltimore's white stoops and brick facades remind me of London," says the artist.

*

Matisse died in 1954. Maybe among the artist's unfinished business was a return to Baltimore to paint those white steps and brick facades.

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