Cone sisters set an example for philanthropic work

More notable Marylanders

October 27, 1999|By Doreen Bolger

Over the past three months, The Sun's editorial page has published its Marylanders of the Century series -- profiles of 21 people who made key contributions to the community and society. We also asked readers to contribute their own Marylanders of note. Here is a selection of the responses we received:

DURING the first half of the 20th century, Dr. Claribel Cone and Etta Cone accumulated one of the most renowned collections of modern art ever assembled.

Upon their deaths, resisting ardent appeals by museum directors in New York, the sisters left their collection of more than 3,000 works by Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin and many other important figures to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The world-renowned Cone Collection has become the cornerstone of the BMA's collection and has inspired scores of art lovers to visit Baltimore for nearly 50 years. With a remarkably creative spirit, their philanthropy -- along with a deep commitment to education and to enriching the cultural life of their community -- continues to set an example. They are truly Marylanders of the century.

Southern roots

The Cone sisters were born in Tennessee to a large German-Jewish family -- Claribel in 1864 and Etta in 1870 -- and later moved here. Encouraged by their family and a flourishing cultural life in Baltimore at the turn of the century, they developed a profound appreciation of the arts.

Claribel graduated from Baltimore Women's Medical College. By age 36, she became president of her alma mater before moving to Europe, where she pursued a career as a research pathologist.

Etta concentrated on the management of the family's domestic life in Baltimore, and it was she who actually began the Cone Collection with the acquisition of several American Impressionist paintings and Japanese prints used to decorate their rooms at the Marlborough Apartments.

As the family's considerable fortune in the textile industry grew, the sisters assembled an unparalleled collection of contemporary art by then-emerging artists. Under the tutelage of family friends Gertrude and Leo Stein, the sisters traveled frequently to Europe where they met Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

The Cones vigorously began collecting the work of these two aspiring artists and would eventually own 113 works by Picasso and more than 500 works by Matisse; they amassed the largest collection of Matisse's works outside of France.

Gift to the BMA

Upon her death in 1929, Claribel left her collection to Etta, with the understanding that it should be given to the Baltimore Museum of Art "in the event the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore becomes improved."

Over time, Etta became convinced that the city had come to appreciate modern art and donated the collection to the BMA. She died in 1949.

Next October, the BMA will celebrate the 50th anniversary of this treasured gift by opening a dramatically redesigned Cone Wing. Stunning new galleries will feature innovatively designed spaces, enhanced paint colors and lighting, and new interpretive materials.

With an emphasis on the visitor's experience, we hope to offer a deeper appreciation for these world-class works of art.

Undoubtedly, Claribel and Etta Cone's commitment to the art of their time will continue to enrich our imaginations at the dawn of the new millennium.

And their example, as great patrons of living artists, continues to inspire Baltimoreans to collect the work of the artists of our own time.

Doreen Bolger is director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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