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Those Modern Victorian Cone Sisters

The Cone Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, with Gauguin’s “Woman of the Mango,” Picasso’s “Woman with Bangs,” and Matisse’s “Interior, Flowers and Parakeets,” is unusual both for its magnitude and for its intimacy — so many female figures, lush interiors, coves; so many bowls of anemones.

The collectors were Dr. Claribel Cone (1864–1929) and her sister Etta (1870–1949), two stout, unmarried, Victorian Jewish women who wore long skirts and petticoats and yet began acquiring “radical” and “savage” art by Picasso and Matisse at the time of the 1905 Salon d’Automne. The current exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York, “Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: the Cone Sisters of Baltimore” (May 6–September 25, 2011), focuses on their extraordinary experiences and acquisitions.

In their lifetime, the Cone sisters amassed 3,000 objects of art which they bequeathed to the city of Baltimore: “sundry pictures, oil paintings, water colors, lithographs, colored aquatints, etchings, prints, drawings, engravings, photographs, Piper prints…also…laces, jewelry, shawls, fabrics, rugs, draperies, portiers, embroideries and other textiles, bric-a-brac, bronzes, antique furniture, marbles, sculptures, curios and other objets d’art…” The New York exhibit includes 51 artworks as well as decorative arts, jewelry, postcards, journals, account books, album photos, and a calling card from Henri Matisse. Enlarged photographs of the Marlborough Street apartments where the Cone sisters and their brother Fred lived frame the galleries. These images show the sepia quality we associate with their era (rather than the vibrant colors of the art) and the cramped quarters where their exotic treasures collided with domestic space. “…You are right, do not let things consume you…” Claribel Cone wrote in 1920 from Munich to her sister Etta in Greensboro.

The pleasure of acquisition — as Claribel Cone put it, “Ever since I was a small girl and picked up all the shells I could find, reveling in their color and in their forms, I’ve been acquiring beautiful things” — became prevalent in wealthy Jewish households in Europe and America even before the start of the modern period. But every collection has its own story. The Cone sisters were born into a close, prosperous, southern, German-Jewish family of 13 children (Cone Corduroy was their family business). Early on, Claribel demonstrated unusual independence and daring, choosing a career in academic medicine while Etta, more compliant and self-effacing, cared for the family household and their aging parents. In Baltimore, the two became friends with Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo. When Etta went to Europe for the first time, Leo met her in Naples and traveled with her. In Paris, she and Gertrude made the rounds of shops, galleries, and gardens together. Scholars can’t agree whether Gertrude and Etta had a love relationship, but the families were thoroughly intertwined during the crucial years before World War I (and before the arrival of Alice B. Toklas).

Gertrude Stein memorialized the sisters with her enigmatic word portrait “Two Women,” noting what family members, artists, and art historians have remarked: “When they were together they knew they were together” and “they were very different the one from the other of them.”