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Sister Act

Etta and Claribel Cone, two Jewish sisters from Baltimore, went to Paris, helped discover Picasso, supported Matisse, and, as a new show at the Jewish Museum argues, shaped the birth of modern art

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Claribel and Etta Cone in Paris, circa 1920s. (The Baltimore Museum of Art, Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collections)

Few among us create true art; the best the rest of us can hope for is the ability to recognize true genius. “Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: the Cone Sisters of Baltimore,” a new exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York, attempts to capture the fascinating story of two such visionaries, the sisters Claribel and Etta Cone of Baltimore, who amassed a personal collection of more than 3,000 works of art, including paintings by Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and over 500 works by Matisse.

The exhibit begins in an oddly darkened blood-red room, where we are introduced to the Cones’ early family history. Emigrating from Germany in 1846, the sisters’ father catapulted a humble grocery business into a textile empire and raised his daughters in luxury. Photographs of the two women as girls suggest little of the life they’re about to lead, a life of art and bohemia: We see photographs of Claribel and Etta as portly, plain-faced, conservatively dressed young women, and learn that Claribel, the older sister, earned a degree in medicine while Etta mostly stayed at home.

Their lives, however, would soon change: In 1898, given $300 to spruce up the family’s home, Etta shocked the Cones by buying five paintings of the relatively unknown American Impressionist painter Theodore Robinson. The lush and colorful landscapes must have awoken something in Etta: Soon, she and her sister were on a modern-art shopping spree. Which, naturally, led them to Gertrude and Leo Stein, the American émigrés at the heart of the burgeoning Paris art scene. The relationship with the Steins, the exhibit suggests, might have been slightly more about pleasure than business, as Etta and Gertrude are rumored to have been lovers. But amorous affairs aside, the Cone sisters were soon traveling across Europe and digging for worthy art. In 1905, they were introduced to an unknown Spanish painter, Pablo Picasso. On their first visit to his studio, Picasso was missing, but he’d left a note in the form of a picture of him with his pants down. Etta, though startled by the vulgarity, still saw it fit to do business with the young painter. A year later, Gertrude Stein’s sister in-law introduced Etta to another promising painter, Henri Matisse. From there on, the collecting never ceased.

The sisters collected paintings, drawings, clothes, and other exotic objects. Not even World War I dampened their enthusiasm—throughout the war, Claribel chose to stay in Germany and continued to buy art. Concerned, her family attempted to provide her with a safe passage home, but no one could find a mode of transportation that would comfortably fit Claribel’s 13 immense pieces of luggage. Baggage was also an issue in the sisters’ daily lives: They would often reserve three opera seats, for example, one for each of them and one for the stuff they’d bought during the day’s excursions. Claribel passed away in 1929, but Etta continued her collecting work, even commissioning Matisse to paint a portrait of her sister.

Self-Portrait (Bonjour Mlle Cone) by Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso, Self-Portrait (Bonjour Mlle Cone), 1907.
The Baltimore Museum of Art; © 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Looking back on Etta and Claribel Cone’s lives, the question arises as to what motivated this obsession. The clues are largely strewn throughout the exhibit. Overall, the impression created is one of an interest that turns into an obsession, which in turn morphs into a calling. This is shown elegantly: We see a quote from Claribel saying that ever since she was a young girl collecting seashells, she loved to hold beautiful objects in her possession. Then, another quote from Claribel, now an adult, confiding to her sister that she prefers art to people because with people; people’s personalities get in the way, while art just comforts. Finally, in a letter written just before her death, Claribel tells Etta to donate all of their art to the Baltimore Museum, on the condition that “the spirit of appreciation of modern art in Baltimore becomes improved.” These, then, are the three stages of the development of a serious art collection: first as childhood preoccupation, then as an adult defense mechanism, and finally as a posthumous contribution for the benefit of the community, the private urges sublimated into a collective good.

But the exhibition does well to remain close to the Cones’ actual lives, offering an impressive interactive touch-screen program that allows the viewer to virtually tour their apartment and marvel at the various masterpieces hung closely together as if they were wallpaper. Though the exhibit offers only samples from the Cones’ actual collection, a few gems stick out: A blue-period Picasso, “Woman With Bangs,” hangs in one of the last rooms, for example, entrancing with its depiction of a world-weary woman and leaving one haunted by her downcast eyes. Of all the Matisses on display, his “Large Reclining Nude” is the most engrossing, flattening the body of a nude woman and allowing the viewer to focus on the human form in relationship to space. Matisse sent the sisters 22 photographs of the work-in-progress, demonstrating just how crucial the Cones had been for the development of one of modernism’s most important painters.

The exhibit’s curator, Karen Levitov, chose to display the paintings in the order they were purchased, not in the order of their creation. This creates some odd juxtapositions, such as wading through a sea of Matisses only to meet a Delacroix as the exhibit’s last painting. But the anachronism conveys a strong sense of the sisters’ developing tastes and relationships with the artists they supported. It also affords a peek at the sisters’ relationship with their Judaism: Seeing a beautiful scroll of Esther piled next to a silver Buddha, one gets the sense that forms, much more than the spirit, were the Cones’ true passion.

It is tempting, walking through the opulence that surrounded Etta and Claribel throughout their lives, to write the two off as wealthy dilettantes who just happened to have good taste. But the exhibit makes a strong point for the sisters as visionaries: With no social media or other platforms for self-publicity in existence, the artists who gave birth to modernism depended heavily on the recognition and support of collectors who were willing to take risks and nurture Europe’s burgeoning avant-garde. Seen in this light, the Cones didn’t collect as much as redeem; without them, one doubts that Matisse, Picasso, and the other young unknowns who benefited so greatly from their dollars would have risen in prominence, and that the artistic and cultural revolution these painters helped usher in would have been possible.

Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: the Cone Sisters of Baltimore” will be on view at the Jewish Museum through September 25, 2011.

Joseph Winkler is a writer living in New York.

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Sister Act

Etta and Claribel Cone, two Jewish sisters from Baltimore, went to Paris, helped discover Picasso, supported Matisse, and, as a new show at the Jewish Museum argues, shaped the birth of modern art

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