Cone sisters traveled the globe in search of art from masters Baltimore pair visited Paris, Florence, Japan

September 29, 1996

The Cone Collection, which will have its first international showing this week in Japan, was amassed by two spinsters from Baltimore who lived in cramped rooms on Eutaw Place but loved to travel the world buying art.

Dr. Claribel and Etta Cone were two of 13 children born to Helen and Herman Cone, who made a fortune with a Baltimore dry-goods business and later with cotton mills in Greensboro, N.C.

Claribel, more outgoing and intellectually daring than her younger sister, pursued a medical career. Born in 1864, she graduated from Women's Medical College at the top of her class, and did postgraduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University and in Frankfurt, Germany. By age 36, she was president of her alma mater.

A striking presence, Claribel was known for spectacular French paste jewelry, tying her hair up in a Psyche knot held in place by silver pins from India and draping her shoulders with silk shawls from North Africa. Her Saturday night parties were exotic enough to be described in The Sun as the closest thing "to forming a salon this city has ever known."

Etta, less flamboyant and independent, was born in 1870, graduated from Western Female High School, and devoted much of her life to managing the household at the Marlborough Apartments.

During the early 20th century, the sisters traveled to such art centers as Paris, Rome and Florence, often with Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo. They amassed an extraordinary collection of paintings, sculptures, drawings, books, furniture, textiles jewelry and other decorative arts -- some 3,000 objects in all.

In 1907, they attended the International (Art) Exposition in Japan, an arduous trip for that era that showed just how bold the sisters were.

Claribel and Etta collected work by some of the most radical artists of their day -- Picasso, van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin and Renoir -- but their greatest commitment was to Matisse. They bought 42 oil paintings, 18 sculptures, 36 drawings, 155 prints and 7 illustrated books from the French artist.

Upon her death on Sept. 20, 1929, Claribel left in her will the "suggestion" that the art collection be given to the Baltimore Museum of Art "in the event the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore becomes improved."

It wasn't until some 20 years later that Etta, who was being wooed by such institutions as New York's Museum of Modern Art, was persuaded by then-BMA director Adelyn Breeskin that Baltimore deserved the sisters' extraordinary collection. Etta Cone died on Aug. 31, 1949.

Source: "Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta," by Brenda Richardson, deputy director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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