The Cone Sisters
THE CONE SISTERS OF BALTIMORE : Collecting At Full Tilt by Ellen B. Hirschland & Nancy Hirschland Ramage – Northwestern University Press / 0-8101-2481-5 / 271 pps (with Bibliography, Footnotes and Appendixes) / $34.95
Born of Jewish immigrant parents from Germany with a history of hard work, success and generosity, this is the life and eccentricities of Etta and Dr. Claribel Cone, as told by their niece and great niece. Two “spinster” sisters who amassed such a staggering collection of art (from “radical, disreputable artists”) that when it was donated to Baltimore Museum of Art upon their deaths, it required its own wing to house it all.
Via their inheritance (and a substantial allowance from a successful brother’s textiles business), they start collecting art from, at the time, unappreciated artists such as Picasso, Degas, Matisse, Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, and other, as yet, famous artists of the early 1900’s.
Most of the upper art echelons thought them crazy and monetarily wasteful, scoffing at their selections only to later grovel to acquire said collections for their own representative museums. The sisters bought whatever they liked, with little, if any, concern as to its future value.
Though extremely prim and proper themselves, they never shied away from provocative art, hanging several nudes prominently in their apartments, such as Matisse’s “Blue Nude”, which caused scandalous reviews and the burning of copies in effigy by Chicago art students.
Etta was first to travel to Paris, where she met Gertrude and Leo Stein, who subsequently introduced her to Picasso and Matisse. Binding friendships ensued and Etta began her collection with five paintings by Theodore Robinson in 1898. With Leo as her first and foremost advisor, Etta was soon snapping up art with aplomb, mostly to help financially strapped artists. Before long, nearly every available inch of the sister’s small, adjoining Marlborough building apartments in Baltimore was covered in works of all sizes, even the bathroom. (Imagine hanging a Matisse in your bathroom?)
Claribel was the more studious of the two, earning a degree in medicine and working as a physician at the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane. She also studied Botany and became a lecturer and professor of pathology and pathological history while also working at the college’s hospital. She never took patients, but only taught. Etta, the youngest of the 11 children, was an accomplished pianist and her parent’s keeper until their deaths, hence her more timid and demure nature.
Via their friendships with the Steins, they were active in Women’s Suffrage, yet ironically, renowned for their eccentric attire, favoring long black skirts and white petticoats where a secret pocket kept their travel and art money. Their sexuality was often questioned, assuredly due to their friendship with Gertrude, but never an issue, (though Stein’s lover, Alice B. Toklas remained jealous of that friendship throughout.)
Claribel had died first, willing her portion of their collection to Etta, who later died in 1949. Prior to her death, Etta was courted relentlessly for the collection by national museums, but she wanted it to stay in their hometown. The Cone wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art now contains over 3000 works, 500 of which are by Matisse with an estimated value of one billion dollars.
Included with family history and personals are histories behind the art pieces they bought, excerpts from letters from Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and between the sisters themselves, as well as Ellen’s own memories of trips to Paris with her aunts to buy art.
Within the appendixes are Claribel’s “Introductory Address to the Medical Class of the Woman’s Medical College” from 1896, a list of her published papers, several writings on their collection from American artist, Shelby Shackelford and John Hopkins Professor of Philosophy, George Boas.
The book is oversized, (an excellent coffee table book) and amply filled with color reproductions of many of their pieces. A fascinating read that gives me further impetus to buy, buy, buy.. even if everyone thinks I’m crazy and monetarily wasteful.
An even more in depth look into their lives comes from Mary Gabriel in her book “The Art of Acquiring – A Portrait of Etta & Claribel Cone” – Bancroft Press / 1-890862-06-1 / 257pps (with Bibliography, Footnotes and Appendixes) / $35.00) which I picked up while visiting their brother’s home in North Carolina. Renovated to house local artists, the house sits atop a luxurious hill on the Blue Ridge Skyway, overlooking a splendid lake, several miles from their expansive porch. This writing digs into more family history and further expounds on the two sister’s relationships with the Steins, Picasso, and Matisse. The perfect follow-up, given your assuredly piqued interest from the first book. Color and B&W reproductions of many of their art pieces, as well a photos of them with the Steins and their lasting friends, the Matisses.