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Exhibit highlights Victorian sisters' art collection

Works by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and the two American women who purchased them in the early part of the 20th century, are the focus of a special exhibit at The Jewish Museum.
/ Source: Reuters

Works by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and the two American women who purchased them in the early part of the 20th century, are the focus of a special exhibit at The Jewish Museum.

"Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore," which runs until September 25, includes 51 works of art, 10 textiles, 10 decorative art objects, and a large array of documents and photographs.

It offers visitors a rare chance to see works of art and gain insight into the distinct sensibilities of the two women who collected them.

"The Cones had a unique, consistent eye, and a particular taste," said Karen Levitov, associate curator at The Jewish Museum. "They didn't just buy whatever they came across."

Born in the Victorian era, the Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta, became devotees of avant-garde art. In travels across Europe and to Africa and Asia, they acquired textiles and decorative arts, examples of which are in the exhibit.

The sisters' collections of oils, water colors, drawings, prints, sculptures, rugs and furniture, laces, textiles and fabrics, were an intensely domestic collection at first, but gradually developed into a public patrimony.

At her death, Etta left the entire collection of approximately 3,000 pieces to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The sisters were daughters of German-Jewish immigrants who had arrived in the United States in the 1840s and whose family name had been Kahn. Claribel and Etta Cone were born, respectively, in 1864 and 1870, two of 13 children. Their father, Herman, after establishing a successful general store in Tennessee, moved the family to Baltimore in 1870.

The elder of the two sisters, Claribel, was known as the intellectual, Levitov said. Having graduated at the top of her class from Women's Medical College in Baltimore in 1890, Claribel did postdoctoral work, completed a medical residency, lectured on pathology and published medical articles.

Etta graduated from Western Female High School and managed the Cone household. Considered the warm-hearted sister, she had an inquisitive mind and an independent streak, Levitov said.


Meanwhile, the sisters' older brothers, Moses and Ceasar, became collectors of a different sort, building an empire of textile mills and finishing plants that allowed them to give their unmarried sisters generous annual stipends.

Another fortuitous circumstance for the Cone sisters was the arrival in Baltimore of Gertrude Stein, the future doyenne of the Paris avant-garde, and her brother, Leo. Both had come from San Francisco to live with their late mother's relatives.

"The Cone-Stein connection was crucial," Levitov said.

Through Baltimore's German-Jewish community, the Steins entered the Cones' social circle. Leo entered Harvard and a year later Gertrude enrolled in the Harvard Annex, which in 1894 became Radcliffe College. When Gertrude began a medical degree at Johns Hopkins University, where Claribel Cone was doing research, the two women cemented their friendship.

Though the Cone sisters always considered Baltimore home, Europe had a strong hold on them.

Etta traveled with Gertrude Stein in Italy in 1904, a trip that turned into a two-year European sojourn.

Gertrude and her brother Leo influenced the Cone sisters' art collecting. In 1905, they brought Etta to Picasso's studio where she bought two works on paper, the first of 113 works by Picasso in the Cone Collection.

Etta was introduced to Henri Matisse in January 1906 when she made the first of her many purchases of Matisse's works. She enjoyed a lifelong friendship with the Matisse family.

The works the sisters collected were displayed in their adjoining residences in Baltimore's Marlborough Apartments. A nephew said what the sisters really had at the Marlborough was a "collection of collections," and that one could see it all if one had weeks to spend.

Claribel died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1929, her younger sister, Etta, surviving her by 20 years.

The exhibit at The Jewish Museum is a collaborative effort among The Jewish Museum, curators at The Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Vancouver Art Gallery, to which the exhibit travels in 2012.