DURHAM — Etta Cone wasn’t in charge of her family’s business, but household matters generally fell to her. So when her father’s death in 1898 left the family home in Baltimore in need of a makeover, she was given $300 to do it.
The expectation was that she would buy furniture or wallpaper. Instead, Etta spent that money (equivalent to more than $8,000 today) on something nobody expected: five paintings by the late impressionist painter Theodore Robinson, which she bought at an estate sale in New York.
It was an unusual choice, especially for someone with no background or training in art. And that was the beginning of one of the most unusual art collections ever assembled, the subject of “Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore.” The exhibit is on display at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art through Feb. 10. A satellite exhibit, “The Cone Sisters Collect,” is running concurrently at the Weatherspoon Art Museum at UNC-Greensboro.
Over a half-century, Etta and her older sister Claribel Cone would amass more than 3,000 works of art, including future classics by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and other cutting-edge modern-art masters. Neither sister ever married, and their brothers – wealthy textile magnates with a string of factories in North Carolina – bankrolled them with enough money to live and pay for trips to Europe. It was on those trips that they started buying art.
“It was very unusual for two unmarried ladies from Baltimore to travel independently and collect modern art,” said Karen Levitov, who curated the exhibit. “There were pockets of modern-art collectors back then, but they were almost exclusively men in New York. Modern art wasn’t even accepted by critics at the time, let alone the public, and people thought they were crazy for buying such radical art. By the late 1920s, when modern art started becoming more accepted, they started consciously setting out to make their collection more complete.”
Levitov is an associate curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, and she drew items from the permanent collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Nasher is the third and final stop for “Collecting Matisse,” after shows at the Jewish Museum and the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia, Canada.
Meeting Stein, Picasso
Among the paintings in the exhibit is “In the Grove,” one of those first Robinson paintings that Etta Cone bought in 1898 (it shows a young woman looking down at her hands, a posture similar to someone texting with a mobile phone). There are also several Picassos, including his blue-period painting “Woman With Bangs,” and several sketches.
Etta met Picasso through the author Gertrude Stein, a close family friend. The families met when the Steins moved to Baltimore in the early 1890s, and Etta met up with Gertrude and her brother Leo when she went to Europe in 1901. Leo Stein took her on a tour of museums in Italy, which was a key part of her art education. Etta’s artistic sensibility was blossoming in 1905 when she came face to face with Picasso, still largely unknown and living in poverty.
“Picasso was doing a portrait of Gertrude Stein, who would go for sittings,” said Sarah Schroth, senior curator and interim director at the Nasher Museum. “He was such a young artist, he needed 90 sittings to get what he wanted for her portrait. She brought Etta along to one of those, and she bought two of his drawings, which were just scattered on the floor. Purchasing Picasso at that time was pretty radical.”
Equally radical was the sisters’ affinity for Matisse. In the early years of the 20th century, Matisse was a leading figure in the modern-art wave of “Fauvists,” so-called because critics said they painted like “wild beasts” (fauves). The first Matisse that Etta bought was 1905’s “Yellow Pottery From Provence,” a bold choice because of its seemingly crude brushstrokes and sense of incompletion.
“Matisse said that it took a lot of nerve to paint Fauvist, but even more to buy one,” Schroth said. “He left that one unfinished so you could see his process, the drawing beneath the paint. That’s something Etta was always interested in, the artistic process and how things were made.”
Over the years, the Cone Sisters acquired works by Gustave Courbet, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent van Gogh, among other notable artists. But Matisse would remain their favorite, and the artist who dominated their collection. Matisse once said that his family would have starved if not for “Americans and Russians” – and by “Americans,” he meant the Cone and Stein families.
Fealty to Baltimore
“Collecting Matisse” has more than just paintings. One room at the Nasher is set up to show a BBC documentary about the sisters narrated by Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame), and works on display include sculptures, textiles and letters the sisters wrote. It’s all arranged in close proximity, mimicking the sisters’ Baltimore apartment, which had art masterpieces filling every nook, cranny and expanse of wall.
“I remember visiting the apartment,” said Nancy Ramage, their great great grand-niece, who was 7 when Etta Cone died. “There was that sense of crowdedness one sees in the pictures, although I was too young to know what all the stuff was. I also remember Etta’s appearance, the long black dresses and heavy jewelry she wore. She was lovely with us as children.”
Older sister Claribel Cone died in 1929, and Etta spent the next 20 years filling in gaps in their collection with an eye toward donating it to a museum after she was gone. In her final correspondence and will, Claribel suggested that Etta donate it to the Baltimore Museum of Art, “in the event the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore becomes improved.”
By the time Etta passed in 1949, she deemed the city’s artistic appreciation sufficient to donate the bulk of their collection to the Baltimore museum. Some duplicates and items that Baltimore passed on wound up in the permanent collection at UNC-Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum, which has a satellite exhibit on view.
“At the time when Etta was considering where to donate, there were other competitors who wanted it,” Levitov said. “The Metropolitan in New York, and others around the world would have their directors come visit and try to lure her.
“But Claribel’s will stated that it should go to Baltimore if the city proved itself deserving, and Etta in her lifetime made sure the city gained an appreciation for modern art.
“It’s kind of sweet that it wound up there and in North Carolina, where they had family ties.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat