At home with the Cones

The celebrated sisters' celebrated art collection is once again receiving visitors. About 3,000 showed up at the Museum of Art yesterday

April 23, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

The woman in the painting is not pretty. She is blue, in fact, and is struggling to rise from the ground where she lies, her body contorted with the effort, her limbs twisted and seemingly mismatched.

Called the "Blue Nude," the painting was considered shocking when it was completed in 1907 by French artist Henri Matisse. Parisian critics who saw the work that year reviled it, calling the painting ugly and unfinished. Six years later, when it was displayed in America, students at the Art Institute of Chicago burned it in effigy. Nineteen years later, when Claribel Cone acquired the painting for her art collection, the "Blue Nude" was considered shocking.

To Susan Hochberg's eyes yesterday, however, it looked just fine.

Perhaps better than ever.

Hochberg has seen the painting many times - frequently at the Baltimore Museum of Art and once when it was on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. But the Baltimore resident nevertheless leaned a little closer to the painting yesterday, all the better to make its reacquaintance.

"I just love it," she said.

Along with about 3,000 people, Hochberg came to the BMA yesterday for a welcome back party. Welcome back to the paintings, prints and sculptures of the Cone Collection, amassed during the first half of the 20th century by two Baltimore sisters, Claribel and Etta Cone. And welcome back to museum-goers from museum director Doreen Bolger, deputy director Jay Fisher and the curators who circulated among the crowds, clearly elated to see the galleries filled with not just art, but people, too.

The $4.2 million renovation project took two years to complete, and during that time a substantial part of the Cone Collection went on display in museums in Birmingham, Ala., Denver and Toronto, cities where it was seen by more than 300,000 people.

In its refurbished home, the collection once again fills a wing of the BMA's main building in now warmer, more intimately scaled rooms. Smaller spaces radiating from a central, domed gallery have replaced the older, larger galleries. In the newly configured rooms, Matisse's "Blue Nude" and several other master works including his "Large Reclining Nude" hang against walls of blue-gray. For the first time, a half-dozen painted odalisques congregate in a gallery that highlights Matisse's method of repeating and reworking a theme. Studies by Picasso are grouped together in a third gallery that provides insights into how the artist thought about composition and form.

The Cone sisters long had worried that Baltimore wasn't ready for their art. That the city would forever be too much a backwater. That residents of their hometown would never truly appreciate the modern art that they loved. Indeed, Claribel, who died in 1929, left her art to her younger sister, Etta, to do with as she saw fit. But in her will, she added (with a touch of asperity) a suggestion: That the collection be left to the Baltimore Museum of Art "in the event that the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore becomes improved."

The sisters yesterday would have been pleased.

Throughout the afternoon, visitors filled the galleries, peering closely at the art works, pausing to listen to the bands playing in the halls, donning 3-D spectacles so that they could take a virtual tour of the Cone sisters' apartment.

Cathy Wencel, who traveled to Baltimore with an art group from Tarentum, Pa., said the warm colors used on the gallery walls set off the colors of the paintings. "These are very forceful paintings. I like the designs and the patterns in them, and these galleries set off the dramatic choices Matisse made." she said.

The visit to the museum was a first for Baltimore resident Lisa Burnworth. A longtime admirer of Matisse, the pharmaceutical company employee was struck by his use of color in the "Blue Nude." "I'm interested by the use of blue as a tribute to Cezanne," she said.

Some museum visitors remarked that the newly renovated galleries forced them to look at the art in new ways. "I've never really thought of these works as being in a collection," said Bob Miller, a truck driver from Baltimore. "I think that seeing these paintings again, on these walls, makes you notice the color more."

Still others said they were simply happy to see the Cone Collection back in the BMA. "It belongs here," said Norma Campbell, a Baltimore psychologist. "Like the Cone sisters, it's a Baltimore thing."

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