10:27am

Sat June 25, 2011
Fine Art

A Tale Of Two Sisters And Their Serious Eye For Art

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:43 am

Though many people consider themselves collectors — whether it's postcards or books or stamps — there are few collections that rival the acquisitions of Claribel and Etta Cone. The Cone sisters, natives of Baltimore, were collectors of some of the greatest and most innovative art of their time. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, they acquired 3,000 pieces, including the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of works by Henri Matisse.

A sampling of their impressive collection is now on display at the Jewish Museum in New York. The exhibit, Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, features more than 50 pieces of art on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the sisters bequeathed the entirety of their collection.

Karen Levitov, associate curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, and Katy Rothkopf, senior curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, recently joined NPR's Susan Stamberg to talk about the sisters and their remarkable collection.

Like their collection, the Cone sisters were extraordinary for their time. The eldest, Claribel, was one of the country's first female doctors, says Rothkopf. Etta — a woman who was known for her warmth and generosity — was responsible for beginning their collection and contributing the majority of its pieces.

When Etta made the sisters' first art purchases in 1898, the pair never intended to give the collection to a museum. Rothkopf says the sisters originally began their collection for simply aesthetic reasons, "Early on, I think it was to decorate their apartments," she says.

But what began as ornamentation quickly became a passion. The sisters' interest in art grew after they met Gertrude and Leo Stein, who were studying at Johns Hopkins University in the 1890s. The pair of siblings struck up a friendship and began to travel together. In fact, it was while the sisters were in Paris with the Steins in 1905 that they first encountered the work of Henri Matisse at the Salon D'Automne.

At the time, Matisse's use of vibrant and unnatural color created a stir in the art world, says Rothkopf. Many people, including the Cone sisters, were shocked by his unorthodox style. "At first, the Cones ... really found [the art] quite scary," she says.

But after the Steins began to purchase his work, the Cone sisters visited Matisse's studio and warmed to his artistic style. It helped that Matisse was a "proper" gentleman, and the Cones found that they could relate to him, Rothkopf explains. "He was their kind of people. They liked him, and so his paintings and drawings and sculptures started to appeal more." Soon they were regularly buying Matisse's art.

The sisters were also interested in other experimental painters of the time, including Pablo Picasso. Gertrude Stein introduced Etta to the painter in 1905, and by the end of their collecting career, the sisters had purchased more than 100 pieces of his work.

Though they were quite fond of Picasso, the Cone sisters could never fully accept his radical ways. "They found [Picasso's] lifestyle a little more shocking," says Rothkopf. "I think they felt a little more comfortable with Matisse. He was a proper gentleman, married with a family, wore three-piece suits — he was very clean and well put together."

Over the years, their collection increased along with their interest in art. "The photographs of their apartment show that there's art just floor to ceiling, wall to wall," says Levitov.

Eventually, the collection became so large that it overtook their homes. "Claribel's collection became so large that she, in fact, rented another apartment in the building," says Rothkopf. "She gave over her apartment just to what she called her museum."

Amassing a collection of this size was undoubtedly a pricey hobby, and the Cone sisters were fortunate to come from a wealthy family of textile industry entrepreneurs. Their two eldest brothers and their father opened the lucrative Cone Mills in North Carolina, which became the main supplier of denim during World War I. After the family's wartime success, it became even easier for the sisters to continue their collection. "There was much more money to spend on works of art and baubles and fabrics and all kinds of wonderful things," says Rothkopf.

The money allowed them to travel all over the world — and collect art along the way. "Many of the purchases they made were souvenirs of this amazing time they were spending out of the country," says Rothkopf. While many travelers bring home postcards or trinkets from their adventures, the Cone sisters brought home some of the greatest art of the time.

Perhaps as remarkable as their collection were the close relationships the sisters fostered with some of the most famous artists of their day. Levitov says the painting she has grown the most attached to from the sisters' collection is Matisse's 1935 Large Reclining Nude ­­-- in part because Etta played an active role in its creation. "While he was painting it, Matisse had it photographed and sent 22 photographs to Etta Cone in Baltimore," she says. "So she got to be involved in the process and see it in its different stages."

Additionally, Etta commissioned Matisse to paint a portrait of Claribel after her death, Levitov says. What she received was four drawings of Claribel and six of Etta, which Matisse gave as a gift to the sisters who had been such strong supporters of his work.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

Are you a collector of recipes, books, autographs, cell phone numbers? The Cone Sisters of Baltimore collected art - 3,000 pieces of it, including 500 works by Matisse. In the late 19th-early 20th century, they had the greatest private collection of Matisse in the world.

Right now at the Jewish Museum in New York, some 50 of their holdings are on view, borrowed from the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Sisters left their collection to their hometown art museum.

Joining us to poke around the collection and the collectors, Karen Levitov, associate curator at New York's Jewish Museum. Hi, Karen.

Ms. KAREN LEVITOV (Associate Curator, New York Jewish Museum): Hi. How are you?

STAMBERG: Good, thank you. And Katy Rothkopf, Baltimore Museum of Art curator. Welcome to you too.

Ms. KATY ROTHKOPF (Curator, Baltimore Museum of Art): Well, thank you so much.

STAMBERG: Let's start with you, Katy, because it was really your hometown ladies that we're talking about. What were those sisters like?

Ms. ROTHKOPF: They were unique individuals. Claribel Cone, who was the elder sister, was very intellectual, really smart, very sure of herself. She was from the first generation of female doctors in this country. Her younger sister, Etta, was very warm, very kind, very generous, from what we understand from the family. She was the one to begin the collection in 1898 and she is the one who bought most of the works in the collection.

STAMBERG: What was the main reason, though, for collecting? Was it just sheer passion? Was it the cache of owning these what in their day were really avant-garde pieces? Was it education America or Americans on what was going on in Europe?

Ms. ROTHKOPF: I think it was really for their own personal pleasure. They did not intend to give their collection to a museum early on. I think it was to decorate their apartments. We think they became interested in collecting because of an early friendship with Gertrude and Leo Stein, who lived in Baltimore in the 1890s when they went to school at Johns Hopkins University. And that, I think, really began the seed.

STAMBERG: And what was it about Matisse, because that really is so much the centerpiece of that collection. Karen, you get to look at an awful lot of them right now there in New York. What do you think?

Ms. LEVITOV: Both the Cones and the Steins first saw Matisse's work at the Salon d'Eau Tome(ph) in Paris in 1905. And I think at first the Cones were quite shocked, really sounded quite scary, because he used colors that was not based on nature. You know, his wife had a green stripe down the middle of her face. But as time went on and they got to know him, I think, you know, for the Cone Sisters he was such a gentleman and he was their kind of people.

And so his paintings and drawings and sculpture, you know, started to appeal more and more and more the more they got to know him.

STAMBERG: Picasso was in there too though, wasn't he?

Ms. ROTHKOPF: Yes. Etta met Picasso in 1905. Gertrude introduced them. And think Etta really was interested in his work and by the end of her collecting career, she and her sister bought more than 113 works by him. And they were quite fond of him. They liked his work. I think his lifestyle was a little more shocking to them. I think they felt a little bit more comfortable with Matisse, who was a proper gentleman, married with a family.

STAMBERG: Wore a three-piece suit.

Ms. ROTHKOPF: Wore a three-piece suit, was very clean and well put together.

STAMBERG: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. LEVITOV: And they - Etta did - commission Matisse to make a portrait of Claribel after her death and Matisse ended up making four drawings of Claribel and six of Etta...

STAMBERG: Oh my goodness.

Ms. LEVITOV: ...which he then gave to Etta as a gift.

STAMBERG: And how did they live with all this stuff, 'cause there was so much of it?

Ms. ROTHKOPF: Well, each sister had their own apartment. They were across the hall from each other. And Claribel's collection became so large that she in fact rented another apartment in the building. She gave over her apartment, (unintelligible) what she called her museum.

Ms. LEVITOV: The photographs of their apartment showed that there's art just floor to ceiling and wall to wall and they had fabrics draped on every surface. And Etta kept Claribel's apartment for the 20 years after she passed away and continued to add art to it, you know, continued this idea of Claribel's museum.

STAMBERG: Where did the money come from?

Ms. ROTHKOPF: Well, the money came from the textile business. The Cone Sisters' two eldest brothers, along with their father, opened the Cone Mills in North Carolina. The Cone Mills were the primary suppliers of denim to the war effort during World War I. After the war, the family was much richer and so there was much more money to spend on works of art and bobbles and fabrics and all kinds of wonderful things.

STAMBERG: They collected avant-garde but they went just so far, didn't they?

Ms. LEVITOV: They often collected portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, interior scenes. And although their taste then grew much more bold and radical, they didn't venture into cubism for example. But they had kind of a taste that was consistent throughout their collecting.

Ms. ROTHKOPF: I think for them many of the purchases they made were souvenirs of this amazing time that they were spending out of the country - in Paris, in Italy, in the south of France. The same way you or I may bring home postcards or, you know, a little scarf or something on our trips abroad, they were bringing home these gorgeous examples of some of the greatest contemporary art of their day.

STAMBERG: Karen, what is the one that you were going to tuck away just before they start packing it all up to go back to Baltimore or whatever the next stop is?

Ms. LEVITOV: Well, there's so many that I love but I think that the one that I've probably grown most attached to is Matisse's Large Reclining Nude. While he was painting it, Matisse had it photographed and sent the 22 photographs to Etta Cone in Baltimore. And so she got to be involved in the process and see it in its different stages. And then, of course, she bought it. It's really a lovely story as well as a fabulous painting.

STAMBERG: Thanks so much. Karen Levitov of the Jewish Museum in New York and Katy Rothkopf from the Baltimore Art Museum. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum of New York is called "Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters." The show runs until September 25, and you can see pieces of the Cone collection at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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