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Matisse, Picasso, and the Cone Sisters: 1920s Firebrands
Carolina Meadows

They arrived in Paris in 1905 with curious minds, a taste for beautiful objects and the means to indulge it. Claribel and Etta Cone, two sisters from Baltimore, began a 50-year journey that gathered together one of the finest personal collections of French art in the early 20th century.

Carolina Meadows residents will have a preview talk on this remarkable collection in October. Sarah Schroth, Interim Director of the Nasher Museum, will show images from the 50 works on loan to the Nasher from the Baltimore Museum.

Claribel Cone was a pathologist and one of the first female doctors in the country. Etta was an aesthete who began collecting art in 1898. The sisters knew Gertrude Stein, who lived in Baltimore while attending Johns Hopkins University. Well-connected to the Parisian avant-garde, Gertrude and her brother Leo introduced the women to Picasso and afterwards to Matisse, unknown artists at the time. The meetings not only changed the artists’ lives and fortunes but began a long friendship between the sisters and the two icons of modern art.

Matisse and Picasso were among a group of painters and sculptors with a radical new vision of where art can go. Their use of feverish colors, startling forms, and a muscular style caused art critics of the time to condemn their work calling their movement the Fauves (Wild Beasts). Nevertheless, their new art matched a brio and creative outburst overtaking Paris in the arts.

While the Cone sisters were tentative at their first exposure to this “scary” art form, as Etta recalled, their better instincts told them that there was indeed a “there there”, as their friend Gertrude, in another context would write. They understood this was cutting-edge art breaching previous boundaries. Over the years they bought generously from the two painters and added other big names to the collection including Van Gogh, Cezanne, Renoir, Degas and Derain.

The sisters’ disciplined eye was further educated with international travels to Asia, Africa, and India, where they focused on decorative art items such as vases, jewelry, furniture, and various textiles. The latter was particularly appropriate to the women whose family wealth derived from a hugely successful textile business, the Cone Mills in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The Cones collected over 3,000 items displayed in their two separate apartments and overflowing into a third apartment. Except for 242 pieces in the Witherspoon Museum in Greensboro, the entire collection was gifted to the Baltimore Museum of Art along with funds for a new wing to house the works. The heart of the collection contains 500 works by Matisse, the largest in the world. Additionally, there are over 100 works by Picasso.

The exhibit at the Nasher runs from Nov. 4 to Feb. 10.

By Dorothy Mahan

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