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Jewish Museum Opens Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore

Exhibition Highlights How the Visionary Cone Sisters Amassed One of the World’s Greatest Art Collections

Henri Matisse called them “my two Baltimore ladies.” Their friend Gertrude Stein wrote a poem about them entitled “Two Women.” The sisters Dr. Claribel Cone (1864-1929) and Miss Etta Cone (1870-1949) began buying art directly out of the Parisian studios of avant-garde artists in 1905. Although their taste for this radical art was little understood – critics disparaged Matisse at the time and Pablo Picasso was virtually unknown – the Cones followed their passions and eventually amassed one of the world’s greatest art collections.

The Jewish Museum will present Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, an exhibition of over 50 works from The Baltimore Museum of Art’s internationally renowned Cone Collection, from May 6 through September 25, 2011. Paintings, sculptures and works on paper by such artists as Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, Gauguin, Renoir, and van Gogh will be featured. Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters will focus on the remarkable vision of these two Jewish sisters from Baltimore and the personal relationships they formed with of-the-moment contemporary artists as they shaped their extraordinary collection. In addition to masterworks of French art, the exhibition will include textiles, decorative arts, arts of Asia and Africa, photographs, and archival materials to place the Cone sisters’ remarkable story in the context of the exciting world of modern art and the artists who made history. Ten of the fine art works and all of the textiles and decorative arts have never been seen in New York City before.

The exhibition is organized by The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Jewish Museum, and the Vancouver Art Gallery. Following its New York showing, Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore will travel to the Vancouver Art Gallery (June 2 to September 23, 2012).

The exhibition is sponsored by Deutsche Bank and supported by other generous donors.

Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters includes iconic paintings by Matisse such as Standing Odalisque Reflected in a Mirror (1923), Interior, Flowers and Parakeets (1924), Large Reclining Nude (1935), and Striped Robe, Fruit, and Anemones (1940). Pablo Picasso’s Blue period Woman with Bangs (1902), as well as a Picasso sculpture and several of his early drawings are also on view. Other highlights include Gauguin’s Tahitian masterpiece, Vahine no te vi (Woman of the Mango) (1892), Gustave Courbet’s The Shaded Stream at Le Puits Noir (c. 1860-65) and Camille Pissarro’s The Highway (La Côte du Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise) (1880). Also on display are important paintings by Delacroix, Renoir, and van Gogh.

The story of the Cone sisters unfolds in the exhibition beginning with their German-Jewish social circle in Baltimore, where they first met Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Claribel Cone held lively Saturday evening salons in their family’s Baltimore home which the Steins attended as young adults. These gatherings attracted the cultural elite of Baltimore including musicians, artists, writers, and scientists.

Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters retraces the Cone sisters’ travels, first to Italy and France, then around the world, and back to Paris where they purchased many outstanding works of art. They were among the earliest collectors to bring European modern art to the United States several years before the famed New York Armory Show of 1913. Their story will be brought to life through archival materials, including Etta’s diary from her first trip to Italy where Leo Stein introduced her to Renaissance art, and Etta and Claribel’s account books showing their passion for collecting not only art-of-the-moment, but jewelry, textiles, furniture, and other objects. Exhibition visitors will also be able to see excerpts from Michael Palin and the Ladies Who Loved Matisse, a 2003 film originally aired on BBC One throughout the United Kingdom. An interactive, touch-screen computer tour of the Cones’ adjoining apartments in Baltimore will reveal how the sisters lived with their art and objects.

As daughters of prosperous German-Jewish immigrants, the Cone sisters were well-educated and widely traveled. Generously supported financially by the successful Cone family textile business, Claribel and Etta made regular trips to Europe to purchase art. They often visited Gertrude Stein, who had become a celebrated avant-garde writer, and her brother Leo in Paris. Through them the Cone sisters became acquainted with a wide circle of artists, musicians, and writers who would influence their collecting. The Steins introduced them to Picasso and Matisse and the sisters became friends and patrons of both artists. Etta Cone met Matisse in 1905, and her initial purchase of several drawings marked the beginning of a life-long passion for his art. Among his first patrons, the Cone sisters collected Matisse’s art throughout his entire career. The sisters also purchased over 100 works by Picasso, including an important group of prints and drawings from the artist’s early years in Barcelona and Paris.

They amassed an exceptional collection of approximately 3,000 objects, many of which were displayed in their Baltimore apartments. The highlight is a group of 500 works by Matisse, considered the largest and most significant in the world.

The Cone sisters filled their adjoining apartments with cutting-edge art. In the late 1920s they began lending works from their collection to museums for temporary exhibitions. When Claribel died in 1929, she left her collection to Etta with a suggestion that it be donated upon Etta’s death to The Baltimore Museum of Art, “if the spirit of appreciation of modern art in Baltimore should improve.” From then on, Etta acquired art to fill out the collection as a public trust. She maintained Claribel’s apartment, adding to the art on its walls, and filling it with fresh flowers daily. Etta was wooed by many museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When she died in 1949 she bequeathed the collection, and nearly $400,000 to construct a wing to house it, to The Baltimore Museum of Art.

Karen Levitov, Associate Curator at The Jewish Museum, is the curator of the exhibition. Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore is organized by The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Jewish Museum, New York, and the Vancouver Art Gallery. The exhibition installation is designed by Adam Rolston of Incorporated Architecture & Design. All works of art are on loan from the collection of The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland.

Image: Paul Gauguin, Vahine no te vi (Woman of the Mango), 1892. Oil on canvas. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.213

The Jewish Museum is presenting three lectures in conjunction with the exhibition in May. On Monday, May 9 at 11:30 am, exhibition curator Karen Levitov will give a lecture entitled Visionary Collectors: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore; a lecture on Picasso in the Cone Collection will be offered by Julie Reiss, Associate Professor in the Master’s Program at Christie’s Education, on Monday, May 16 at 11:30 am; and on Thursday, May 19 at 6:30 pm, Dr. Jack Flam, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, will present A Feminine Mystique: The Special Qualities of the Cone Matisses. Additional program details and ticket information can be obtained at 212.423.3337 or

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