The Baltimore Museum of Art’s Cone Collection is an unmissable venue for early French modernist painting and sculpture, yet it can be easily overlooked, situated as it is within an afternoon’s drive of several gargantuan art institutions scattered along the East Coast. But if there’s one thing that’s truly unbeatable about the BMA’s Cone Collection, it is the museum’s holdings of Matisse. Including more than six hundred works by the French modern master, the Cone Collection is unsurpassed, in this category, by any other on earth. This is all thanks to the work of two sisters: Claribel Cone (1864–1929) and Etta Cone (1870–1949), whose family collection is housed in a dedicated wing.
Dr. Claribel and Ms. Etta Cone were Baltimore spinsters of German-Jewish heritage who befriended Gertrude Stein while Stein was studying medicine with Claribel at Johns Hopkins University. That friendship proved a catalyst for this unlikely collection, as the tradition-minded Cones (who favored long Victorian dresses decades after they ceased to be popular) followed Gertrude’s lead to bohemian Paris and began collecting some of the most avant-garde artists in the cultural capital.
Of the two sisters, Claribel is typically thought of as the driving force of the collection. Perhaps because she was professionally established as a doctor, the elder Claribel was often listed by gallery records as the sole buyer of artworks that were really dual purchases. This has led to the popular notion that Claribel had the more daring and prescient eye.
The BMA thinks Etta deserves more credit, and it has now put on an exhibition, “A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone, and Baltimore,” which examines the younger sister’s efforts.1 Here we find that it actually was Etta who started the collection, Etta who first bought works by Matisse, and Etta who ultimately bequeathed the entire lot to the museum, ensuring that these modernist landmarks would have a permanent home in Baltimore. Organized by the curators Katy Rothkopf and Leslie Cozzi, the exhibition includes more than 160 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints arranged chronologically to tell the story of Etta’s involvement, and, in the end, her deep friendship with this twentieth-century genius.
Upon entrance to the exhibition, we’re met with a room that collects examples from Etta’s trip to Paris in 1905–06, when she rented a room in the same building as Stein and first visited the relatively unknown Matisse’s studio, immediately purchasing two figure drawings. These were followed up by additional purchases of works on paper, and then her first painting: a small still life titled Yellow Pottery from Provence (1906). Representative of Matisse’s Fauvist period (from the word fauve, meaning “wild beast”), Yellow Pottery is somewhat misnamed—it has as much orange and green in it as yellow—and its background comprises four abstract bands of arbitrary color: cerulean, green, pink, and brown. An adventurous selection, surely, by the lady from Baltimore.
Soon after that studio visit, family obligations required that Etta return home to the States, but both Etta and Claribel made repeated trips back to their friends in Paris in the years leading up to World War I. When war struck, however, both their travels and collecting were stalled. It wasn’t until 1922 that the sisters returned to Paris together again, where they immediately resumed purchasing works by Matisse, who was now selling primarily through his gallery.
As a result, the Cones missed out on getting a first look at the products of Matisse’s wartime period, which many consider to include the most radical and important works of his career. These paintings are characterized by carving arabesques that delineate muscular, austere forms—Matisse’s unique response to cutting-edge cubism. Yet perhaps because of the Cones’ purchasing hiatus, or perhaps simply because of their own aesthetic taste, these are almost entirely absent from the collection. Instead, the Cone Collection’s true strength is in its holdings of Matisse’s Nice period in the 1920s and 1930s, works that many critics, then and more recently, have seen as reactionary, conservative, and feminine—evidence that this one-time “wild beast” had lost his roar.
It was all bosh, of course. These are beautiful pictures, and no less intelligent for being so. In pictures like Young Woman at the Window, Sunset (1921), Still Life, Bouquet of Dahlias and White Book (1923), and Large Cliff with Fish (1920), Matisse took the lessons he had learned from his Fauvist paintings, with their liberated color choices, and his wartime works, with their formalist construction of the picture plane, and opened these modernist ideas to his firsthand experience of perceptual space and light.
The paintings could look as breezy as the seaside Nice air, yet they were anything but superficial. One significant work from the period, The Yellow Dress (1929–31), is surrounded by fifteen preparatory drawings. These allow us to watch how Matisse familiarized himself with the model as well as her billowing yellow dress and the spaces of the studio that surrounded them both. In the final painting, Matisse arranges that setting—the hexagonal pattern of the carpet, the diagonal squiggles of the purple and green wallpaper, the partly opened shutters that allow us a peek onto the balcony and the sea behind—into a symphonic orchestration of vibrating lines, luxurious color, and resplendent light. It’s a masterpiece, to be sure, but in my many years of visiting the Cone Collection I don’t think I’ve ever quite understood it as I do now.
Continuing on through the exhibition we encounter more and more knockouts, including Interior, Flowers and Parakeets (1924), bought by Etta in 1925, which hangs next to a Persian rug of the sort that Matisse would have used as inspiration for the floral patterns that dance across so many of his paintings. There are also several Odalisques, of nude temptresses lounging about in inviting Orientalist interiors—a favorite subject of the unmarried Etta’s.
One chief virtue of this exhibition is its demonstration that observational drawing was a crucial component of Matisse’s practice throughout his career. Even Matisse’s most abstracted paintings are shown here to have developed from original sketches done directly from the model. The Large Reclining Nude of 1935, flattened and distorted as it is, its colors nearly arbitrary in their saturated intensity, hardly seems tied to any original experience of reality. Yet flanking it on both sides are two charcoal figure studies that show Matisse clearly working from a model in the room, figuring out how to situate that classic pose within a space in the picture.
A similar point is made by a large gallery that collects Matisse’s efforts in illustration, for several poetry books by the Symbolist writer Stéphane Mallarmé. Here we watch as the draughtsman takes a chosen motif—say, “Nymph and Faun,” “the Hair of Herodias,” “the Swan,” or others—and slowly abstracts it through streamlining reinterpretations. What results are often spartan sketches comprising just a handful of contours, yet these somehow retain a stirring sense of the original weights and movements of his chosen subjects, communicated all the more powerfully for not being hampered by extraneous detail.
I could go on and on about this wonderful exhibition. Of course, it’s difficult to mess up Matisse. If the show leaves anything to be desired, it’s that Etta often seems to fall out of view entirely. One must consult the accompanying catalogue to find any serious discussion of the collector’s tastes, her desires, her history, and the extent of her relationship with Matisse—which seems to have been really a friendship, quite warm and sincere. But even if it doesn’t quite answer all our questions about this remarkable woman, “A Modern Influence” succeeds as a celebratory reminder of Etta’s indelible mark on this museum, and thus, this city.