The Cone sisters — Etta and Claribel — were instrumental in starting the Baltimore Museum of Art’s massive Henri Matisse collection, which has more than 1,200 paintings and works on paper. It remains the largest public collection of the French modern artist’s work in the world.
But while Claribel Cone’s contributions have been well-documented, what is probably less well-known is just how significant a role Etta Cone also played in building the collection.
Etta Cone, a Jewish art collector who lived from 1870-1949, had a 43-year friendship with Matisse. She was responsible for bringing the majority of his works to the museum through their long-distance collaboration from Baltimore to Paris.
The BMA’s current exhibit, “Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone, and Baltimore” fully recognizes Etta Cone’s contributions for the first time, according to the museum. Open through Jan. 2, the exhibit serves as an important lead-in to the museum’s new Ruth Marder Center for Matisse Studies, which opened this month. (As of press time, the exhibit is closed until Dec. 29 due to a surge of COVID-19 cases.) The exhibit features more than 160 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and illustrated books, as well as a scholarly catalogue that includes research on the formal, technical and social aspects of Cone and Matisse’s artistic and collecting practices.
Both the exhibit and the new center were the brainchild of two individuals: center director Katy Rothkopf, senior curator of European painting and sculpture at the BMA, and Jay Fisher, the museum’s now-retired deputy director for curatorial affairs, chief curator and senior curator of prints, drawings and photographs.
For years, they had hoped to bring Etta Cone’s story to life.
“We both felt very strongly that her older sister Claribel had always gotten lots of attention for having bought some of the great works in the Cone collection,” Rothkopf said.
Yet it was Etta Cone’s friendship with Matisse that kept the collection growing after her sister’s death in 1929.
Her interest in the arts can be traced back to her early years in Baltimore, where she lived with her family in a brownstone at 1607 Eutaw Place, a fashionable residential district in the late 1800s.
Among a large German-Jewish community in Baltimore, the Cone sisters had a particularly active social life, hobnobbing with musicians, artists, writers and scientists at weekly open-house evenings Claribel Cone hosted.
“It certainly was a part of Baltimore society that was very cultured, and there was interest in literature and music and art, so I think it definitely played a role in her deciding to really devote herself to the arts,” Rothkopf said.
One of those guests was Gertrude Stein — the notable avant-garde writer and collector, who was studying medicine at Johns Hopkins University in the 1890s — and her brother Leo.
It’s hard to say how much influence the Steins had on Etta Cone, Rothkopf said, but after they arrived in Baltimore, Etta Cone bought her first art piece.
Her father had given her $300 to decorate the family home, Rothkopf said, and “she decided to use the money not to buy antique furniture, not to buy a beautiful rug, but instead decided to spend the money on art.”
Leo Stein led both the sisters to their European travels, where they began collecting from prominent artists such as Pablo Picasso and were introduced to Matisse in 1906.
Before Claribel Cone’s death in 1929, the two sisters had acquired about 700 of Matisse’s works.
Upon seeing these when paying his respects to Claribel Cone the following year, Matisse was inspired to work with Etta Cone, communicating through letters for the next two decades to grow the collection.
“That visit really changed their relationship forever,” Rothkopf said.
He saw not only works by him but by his contemporaries and artistic heroes, Rothkopf said, noting that he then started to make her pieces, save things for her or provide her with whatever would make the collection strongest.
Leslie Cozzi, BMA associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs, writes in a description of the exhibit that those communications allowed for a unique intimacy between artist and collector.
“It enabled Etta Cone to engage with Matisse’s process,” she said.
In Claribel Cone’s will, she said she wanted Baltimore to become worthy of a grand collection of modern art, and the BMA has worked to create a climate of appreciation for the style.
Etta Cone donated about 600 pieces to the BMA upon her death in 1949.