Women have been essential in developing and leading the Baltimore Museum of Art throughout its 109-year history. Among the most renowned are Claribel and Etta Cone, two sisters from Baltimore who formed one of the premier collections of modern European art in America.
The Cone sisters are notable for their interest in some of the most progressive art of their time, for supporting numerous contemporary artists and for their dedication to Baltimore. They not only brought together an impressive collection, but through their generous bequest to the BMA, they also played a major role establishing the museum’s national and international reputation.
So how did these two Victorian-era women in Baltimore come to form this extraordinary art collection?
Family support and a strong network of friends played a big role in making the sisters’ contribution to the art world and to the Baltimore community possible. As the daughters of German émigrés Helen and Herman Cone, Claribel was the fifth (born 1864) and Etta the ninth (born 1870) of 13 children. Herman Cone moved the family to Baltimore in 1870, opening a wholesale grocery business and becoming quite prosperous.
Both sisters graduated from a public high school in Baltimore and Etta took on the responsibility of managing the household while Claribel pursued advanced studies in medicine, eventually becoming president of the Woman’s Medical College of Baltimore and doing advanced research on pathology at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
With a generous yearly income inherited from their father and funds from successful Cone textile businesses, Claribel and Etta were financially secure. The sisters participated in the city’s lively German-Jewish social scene with Claribel hosting frequent gatherings on Sunday evenings attended by renowned writer and collector Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, as well as many musicians, artists, writers and scientists.
The Cone sisters developed their knowledge about, and appreciation for, art on their own. Etta Cone began the Cone Collection in 1898 with the purchase of five paintings by American artist Theodore Robinson to decorate her family home. Her choice was unusual, as there were few Americans collecting impressionism at the time. She and Claribel made the first of several trips to Europe in 1901, traveling with Leo Stein throughout Italy. Etta described every move in her diaries, and it is clear she spent considerable time in museums by herself, determined to broaden her recognition of artists and her knowledge of the history of painting.
The sisters were meeting artists during their travels, and they visited two of the greatest artists of the 20th century before they became famous.
Etta first visited Pablo Picasso’s studio with Gertrude Stein in 1905 and purchased a drawing and an etching. Her acquaintance with Henri Matisse followed in 1906 with several studio visits, where she purchased two drawings, a watercolor, and an oil painting, “Yellow Pottery from Provence” (1905). Etta purchased several other works and began corresponding with the artists, even indulging Picasso’s fondness for American comics. He thanked her by sending her a playful drawing titled “Self Portrait (Bonjour Mlle Cone)” (1907). Both artists were early in their careers. In fact, Americans were so shocked by Matisse’s “Blue Nude” painting in 1913 that art students in Chicago burned an effigy of it.
As World War I approached, the Cone sisters’ art collecting slowed down, with Etta returning to Baltimore and Claribel staying in Munich to continue her research. The Cone Collection experienced its greatest growth beginning in 1922. The sisters collaborated in their collecting efforts, adopting a more methodical approach distinguished by three primary objectives: a sustained commitment to collecting both contemporary and past works by Matisse; purchasing historical works by late 19th-century European artists who influenced the development of modern art, such as Paul Cézanne’s “Mont-Sainte Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry” (c. 1897); and collecting works by Matisse’s contemporaries.
Their purchases provided the foundation for a Matisse collection recognized for its comprehensive representation of the artist’s paintings in Nice from the 1920s forward. Claribel and Etta also bought Matisse’s earliest sculptures, which Etta continued to expand into the most significant private collection of the artist’s bronzes in the U.S.
Claribel Cone died in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1929. For the next 20 years, Etta added substantially to her collection with works that explored the artistic creative process. During a visit to the United States, Matisse came to Baltimore to offer his condolences to Etta. Seeing the sisters’ unified collection of his work for the first time must have reinforced his regard for their patronage.
In the 1930s, Etta began a determined effort to build her Matisse holdings, and the artist and his daughter, Marguerite, responded by reserving artworks just for her. He also sent 22 progress photos of the “Large Reclining Nude” (1935) painting, also known as the “Pink Nude,” to entice her to add it to the collection. Etta’s support for the Matisse family also extended to buying a bicycle for the artist’s grandson, Claude, which the family used to buy rations during World War II.
With all their travels and experiences, the Cone sisters’ dedication to their hometown never wavered. By 1940, museum directors and curators frequently visited their Baltimore apartments, one that was Etta’s home and the other that had been Claribel’s home, to view this increasingly famous collection. No comparable gathering of the work of Matisse was accessible anywhere in the U.S.
Accompanying the growing prestige was intense competition for its custodianship. But Claribel had extended a challenge in her will that the BMA should receive their collection “if the spirit of appreciation of modern art in Baltimore becomes improved.” Etta also collected works by several Baltimore-based artists, such as Florence Austrian, Simone Brangier Boas, Leon Kroll, John D. Graham, Herman Maril, John McGrath, Edward Rosenfeld and Aaron Sopher.
The sisters also provided the resources to showcase the Cone Collection at the BMA. Etta passed away in 1949, and her bequest to the BMA included more than 3,000 objects with more than 600 works by Matisse and 114 by Picasso — plus hundreds of prints and drawings; illustrated books; textiles; 18th- and 19th-century jewelry, furniture, and decorative arts; objects of African art and adornment; and antique ivories and bronzes, as well as the sisters’ archives and personal library.
Etta provided the funds so that a wing dedicated to the Cone Collection could be added to the museum. Completed in 1957 and renovated several times since then, the Cone galleries remain among the most visited areas in the BMA.
The BMA has continued building its Matisse holdings, which now comprise more than 1,200 objects, including many given by members of the artist’s family. The museum has organized many exhibitions on Matisse, the Cone sisters and the Cone Collection — presented in Baltimore and around the world — and contributed new scholarship on Matisse’s work.
The Cone sisters were trailblazers, and their story has inspired books, plays and television programs. Their example has inspired the BMA to continue collecting the art that represents the best of local and international creativity, seeking artists who are breaking new ground and bringing greater recognition to the talent in our hometown.
Katy Rothkopf is the Anne and Ben Cone memorial director of the Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies and senior curator of European painting and sculpture at the Baltimore Museum of Art.