A rare sighting: Cone Collection works on paper

June 04, 1995|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

Works on paper usually spend more time in the darkness of an archival drawer than they do on a museum wall. Because of their sensitivity to light, they tend to make brief public appearances and then go back into the vaults.

That's why the more than 150 drawings, prints and watercolors in the exhibit "Matisse, Picasso and Friends: Masterworks on Paper From the Cone Collection" qualify as a rare treat. The show opens Wednesday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Many of these works have been incorporated in various Cone-related exhibits over the years, but this marks the first time in the 45 years since the Cone bequest was made to the museum that an exhibit has been organized that exclusively features its works on paper.

"It will offer a much broader picture" of the Cone Collection, says Jay Fisher, BMA curator of prints, drawings and photographs, who organized the show.

The 3,000-piece collection assembled by the Baltimore sisters Dr. Claribel Cone (1864-1929) and Miss Etta Cone (1870-1949) in the first half of the century included much more than celebrated paintings by the likes of Matisse and Picasso. The sisters also collected ivories, furniture, African art, textiles and an art-book library. But their 400 works on paper are an especially important component of the overall treasure trove.

"They significantly broadened the art historical basis of their collection with works on paper," observes Mr. Fisher, citing how a 19th-century drawing of an odalisque by Ingres serves as an important precursor of the female nudes done by Matisse in the early 20th century.

Besides filling art historical niches, Mr. Fisher says the sisters' frequent purchases of works on paper attest to "particularly Etta's real understanding of the artistic process that naturally took her to drawings. She was interested in the intimate revelation of the artistic process."

Another reason the Cone sisters went after works on paper was their relative affordability.

"They didn't think of themselves as serious collectors initially. They were very modest, and they certainly were attracted to the idea of collecting drawings because they were tight," Mr. Fisher notes with a smile.

Archival photographs show these works on paper framed and hanging with the paintings in the Cones' apartment in Baltimore. Guided in their European travels and initial art purchases by the influential likes of Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo, the Cones bought many prints and drawings by Matisse and Picasso as well as important works by the likes of Mary Cassatt, Georges Seurat, Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot.

While the forceful medical doctor, Claribel, has often been given more credit than the more domestic Etta in the formation of the collection, this show makes a strong case for Etta's aesthetic eye and persistence.

The Cone sisters had begun collecting on a small scale at the turn of the century, but really emerged as collectors around 1905, when Gertrude Stein took them to Picasso's studio. It was their direct purchase of works on paper from Picasso that made this European shopping trip a profound experience.

"The story is that they picked up drawings off the studio floor," Mr. Fisher relates. "But they're very well selected and from a time when he was working out ideas for major paintings. These drawings offer a month-by-month chronology of the progress of his ideas."

There are, for instance, studies for "Circus Family," a painting now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Recent X-rays of this painting show how it evolved from the initial studies to the finished painting.

All told, the current show includes 55 works on paper by Picasso as well as 68 works by Matisse.

The Cone sisters formed an especially warm personal regard for Matisse, and he in turn referred to them as "my two Baltimore ladies." They had been patrons of his as early as 1906, at a time when he was not yet famous. Matisse appreciated their support over the years, acknowledging it with such gestures as the series of charcoal and crayon portrait drawings he made of the sisters.

Ever looking to expand their Matisse holdings, Etta sometimes picked drawings that were studies for paintings already in their collection, such as the charcoal drawings for the "Large Reclining Nude" of 1935. Her interest in Matisse continued until the end of her life. She bought Matisse's 1947 illustrated book "Jazz," which gave the collection examples of the elderly artist's cut-outs.

Perhaps Etta's single most important purchase of works on paper by Matisse was the maquette for his first illustrated book, "Poesies de Stephane Mallarme" (1930-32). The 250 items in the maquette include drawn sheets, etchings, copper plates and proof copies of the book.

"Matisse knew the maquette would stay intact. He put it together and wanted them to have it as an important record of the process of making a work of art," Mr. Fisher says.

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