A Family Affair

Relatives of the Cone sisters tour the new BMA wing that houses their aunts' collection

April 18, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

More than one Cone collection was on view yesterday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

There was, of course, the collection of paintings and sculptures assembled during the early 20th century by Claribel and Etta Cone and given to the museum. But there also was a sizable collection of the Cone sisters' proud descendants: grand-nephews; great-grandnieces; great-great-grandnephews; even a 6-month-old great-great-great-great-grandniece.

All in all, there were more than 100 paintings, sculptures and works on paper; plus 86 relatives from as far away as California and as nearby as North Baltimore at the museum to view and be viewed.

The exhibition tour and lunch was one of several events scheduled this week by the museum to celebrate the completion of a $4.2 million renovation of the Cone Wing. The new installation, which opens to the public Sunday, took two years to complete and centers on masterworks by French artist Henri Matisse, while highlighting the sisters, Claribel and Etta Cone, as collectors.

"I look around here, and I see things that I remember hanging in the aunts' apartments," said Sydney "Terry" Cone III, a grandnephew who lives in New York.

"That one there," he added, nodding at Matisse's "Woman in Turban." "That used to be just before the main sitting room."

As a youth, Sydney Cone III was given the run of Aunt Etta's "print room" and amused himself by flipping through Picasso sketches and Matisse drawings.

But a larger work sparked his imagination: "The one with the Chihuahua!" he said referring to Matisse's "Interior with Dog," which depicts a sleeping dog against an elaborate background of carpet, wallpaper and curtains.

"As a little boy, I just found that fascinating."

The Cone sisters never married and lived in the Marlborough building on Eutaw Place. Using family wealth made in textiles, they traveled frequently to Europe, cultivating close friendships with avant-garde artists, and holding dinner parties attended by Gertude Stein and her brother, Leo.

For the first half of the 20th century, they amassed one of the foremost private collections of art, including 500 paintings, sculptures and works on paper by Matisse; as well as works by Picasso, Cezanne, van Gogh and Renoir. In doing so, they acquired a reputation for independent thinking and, well, certain eccentricities.

All of which makes for grand family reminiscences.

The Cone relatives, many of whom bore a clear family resemblance, swapped stories over a lunch of shrimp salad and roasted vegetables. Ethel Weber Berney, who married into the family, remembers visiting Matisse on a honeymoon trip to Nice.

Then in his 80s, the artist was bedridden. "His bedroom walls were covered with cutouts," she said. "He was in bed, and he had a bed tray across his lap and beneath it, there was a cat."

Claribel Cone, a painter from San Francisco, retold anecdotes handed down by her father, Harold, who frequently traveled by ship with his aunts. On a nightly basis, the spinster sisters would ask their young nephew to check for strange men, urging him to peer under their beds - in case someone was lurking there.

"Particularly Etta, I think," said Claribel Cone. "She was the more delicate."

In France, the aunts often took Harold to visit the artist they had befriended. At meals, Matisse amused his young visitor by building towering sculptures out of ashtrays and plates, she said. "My dad said Picasso wasn't half as nice."

After lunch, many of the Cones' relatives donned 3-D spectacles so that they could participate in a virtual tour of the Cone sisters' apartment.

The tour, designed by the Imaging Research Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and given on floor-to-ceiling screens, allows visitors to steer through the apartment by turning a period doorknob.

"Oh, the apartments were much more cluttered than that!" said one Cone.

Truth be told, the two aunts kept three apartments: one for each to live in, and a third to hold the spillover from Claribel's collections. In room after room, there were paintings, prints and drawings; antique furniture; 18th- and 19th-century jewelry; Oriental rugs; silks and embroideries from the Near and Far East, wooden African sculptures; curios; inlaid boxes; postcards; and nearly 1,500 books.

Art was simply everywhere.

"I remember being told to go sit in the bathroom and to look at the wonderful pictures," said Frances Friedman of Baltimore. "I think I was supposed to come out and tell them my favorite. It was overwhelming."

In general, the Cone relatives seemed pleased with the newly installed wing. Several mentioned with approval the warm colors of the gallery walls and the increased emphasis on the story of the Cone sisters as collectors.

"I started crying the moment I walked in. It's the first time it's really felt like their place," said Margaret Berney Mack of New Haven, Conn.

But she'd like to rearrange the installation slightly. Matisse's painting, "Interior with Dog," should be hung over a cabinet. And his famous sculpture "The Serf" should be placed on top of the cabinet, and in front of the painting.

That's how it was at Aunt Etta's, she said. Painting, cabinet and sculpture all stood near the front door. "When she stood at the door to say good-bye, I'd kiss her and look back, and she'd be standing there, just patting her statue."

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