A Tale Of Two Collectors

Forever linked by birth and bequest, Etta and Claribel Cone brought distinctive attitudes and aesthetics to their priceless collection of modern art.

April 22, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

Dr. Claribel Cone gazes imperiously from a charcoal portrait in the Baltimore Museum of Art. In it, she possesses beauty that seems born of confidence, not perfection. Her wavy hair is pulled back, and from beneath dark slashes of brow, her eyes seem to gleam with intelligence. Nearby, her younger sister, Etta, is drawn in silhouette, her cheek soft and full, her head tilted as she looks quizzically to the side, as if waiting for someone else to finish speaking.

Henri Matisse created both portraits. In 1930, the year after Claribel died at age 64, Etta commissioned him to draw her sister's picture. But the artist surprised his long-time friend and patron by drawing not one, but four renditions of Claribel -- and six of Etta.

Later, Matisse described the creative process in a letter to a friend as being both "arduous" and "very interesting." He explained: "It's based on two opposing characters from the same family."

Who better to sketch such differences? The Cone sisters, whom Matisse called his "two Baltimore ladies," patronized the French artist when few others did.

Together and separately they traveled the world, motoring (with chauffeur) through Switzerland, riding elephants in India, attending opera in Italy, befriending avant-garde artists in France. Neither married. Both shopped compulsively. They were by turns generous, compiling extensive lists of gifts to be given, or tight-fisted, noting the price of everything from a cab fare to how much it cost to cobble a shoe. Blessed with wealth from family holdings in textile mills, they had the means to live as they wished and, for the most part, did.

For the sisters, art was something to hang on the bedroom wall, to look at daily, to enjoy. Despite skepticism from family members and fellow Baltimoreans, they bought hundreds of works from avant-garde artists such as Matisse and Picasso.

That they shared a passion for modern art is easily seen in their possessions. The collection, which was left by Etta in 1950 to the BMA, is renowned for its nearly 500 paintings, sculptures and works on paper by Matisse as well as its works by Picasso, Cezanne, van Gogh, Renoir, and other 20th-century masters. The museum today celebrates the opening of a newly renovated and expanded Cone Wing, in which more than 100 works owned by the sisters are on display.

But the huge collection also includes hundreds of prints and drawings, antique furniture, 18th- and 19th-century jewelry, Oriental rugs, textiles that range from Coptic fragments to embroidery from the Middle East, wooden African sculptures, curios, leather, wood or inlaid boxes, cabinets, a collection of mortars and pestles, hundreds of postcards, a group of keys and 1,500 books.

Still, the sisters were as different as they were alike, and, if you look carefully, those differences, too, are reflected in their renowned art collection.

Friends were free thinkers

Claribel and Etta were the fifth and ninth children in a German-Jewish family of 13 siblings. Their father, Herman Cone, who emigrated from Germany in 1846, was a successful merchant and left each of his offspring an annual income. That income grew significantly when the booming textile business, developed in Greensboro, N.C., by brothers Moses and Ceasar, blossomed during World War I.

As chronicled in a biography titled "Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta," by former BMA deputy director Brenda Richardson, their lives were rich and peopled by free thinkers such as Gertrude Stein. They lived in the Marlborough building on Eutaw Place, next door to their youngest brother, Frederic. Between them, the three Cones kept four apartments: one each for Etta and Frederic, and two for Claribel, who kept her collections in one and lived in the other -- on a separate floor.

They became acquainted with Stein and her brother Leo, who in 1892 moved from San Francisco to Baltimore. It was an important association: Both sisters formed deep friendships with Gertrude; Etta typed the manuscript for her first book, "Three Lives."

Gertrude, in turn, portrayed the sisters' relationship in a long essay titled "Two Women." And Leo, who wrote the book "The A-B-C of Aesthetics," was enormously influential in developing both sisters' artistic sensibilities. On Saturday evenings, Claribel held gatherings in her apartment, which The Sun described in 1911 "as near to forming a salon as anything this city has ever known."

Edward T. Cone was 11 years old when he first visited his aunts. Now 84, the composer and music professor at Princeton University remembers their Baltimore homes as treasure troves. Like fusty Victorian museums, the apartments were crammed with everything from a Moroccan bridal veil to works by Picasso. Oriental rugs lay this way and that across the floors. Pictures covered nearly every inch of wall. Bronze and marble sculptures sat atop tables and cabinets. Drawers were stuffed with laces and silks.

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