Visual Arts » 2D

Outlandish Women

What Two Misunderstood Sisters Left the Art World



There were two of them, they were sisters, they were large women, they were rich, they were very different one from the other one.

"Two Sisters," Gertrude Stein, 1925

In the days when Americans traveled to Paris in search of the things that only Paris could offer, the artist Henri Matisse met the Cone sisters.  It probably saved his career, and perhaps even, his life.

Matisse was not well-liked. At least not in 1905 when the modern art exhibit Salon d'Automne descended upon Paris, leaving the art critics in shock. It was the advent of the brief period of art known as Fauvism. Fauve, translated: wild beast. Among the jarring, dissonant pieces on display were several works by Matisse, including the multicolored Woman with a Hat.

Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, and Etta Cone, Settignano, Fiesole, Italy, June 26, 1930. BMA Cone Archives
  • Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, and Etta Cone, Settignano, Fiesole, Italy, June 26, 1930. BMA Cone Archives

At the exhibit that day was the wealthy Baltimore-bred physician Dr. Claribel Cone, accompanied by her younger sister Etta. The sisters, ages 41 and 34 at the time, were spending an extended vacation in France with noted American expats, writer Gertrude Stein and her art guru brother Leo. Later in the day, Claribel pulled out her journal and penned her thoughts about the exhibit:

"We asked ourselves are these things to be taken seriously. As we looked across the room we found our friends earnestly contemplating a canvas--the canvas of a woman with a hat tilted jauntily at an angle on the top of her head--the drawing crude, the color bizarre."

The establishment certainly didn't take them seriously. Art critics of the day dismissed Matisse and his contemporary André Derain as "wild beasts," who took little concern for artistic form, color, and propriety. But for the Cone sisters, despite their initial astonishment, curiosity had taken over.

And thus began the story of one of the most extensive, most misunderstood, and perhaps most significant, collections of modern art--a collection that will be on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art to the Indianapolis Museum of Art from Oct. 13 to Jan. 12. Today, the Cone Collection consists of more than 1,800 works by modern masters, including Picasso, Gauguin, Cezanne, Seurat, and Degas. But mostly, Matisse.

Novices with Taste

Born into a successful German Jewish immigrant family, the sisters rode the waves of Baltimore's upper echelon; Claribel as a physician; Etta as the overseer of the Cone household and primary caregiver for her aging parents and siblings.

"Older, bolder, and shorter" than her sister, Claribel entered medicine when the field was barely open to women. A champion of better conditions for maternity hospitals, the newly implemented birth registration system, and women's suffrage, Claribel was a trailblazer from the get go.

In the Grove, c. 1888. Theodore Robinson. - COURTESY OF THE BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART
  • Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art
  • In the Grove, c. 1888. Theodore Robinson.

Whether or not Etta was content to stay at home while her sister traveled the professional circuit, it was ultimately Etta who led the twosome into a career of art collecting. In 1897, in the wake of her father's death, Etta decided to cheer up her mother by "redecorating" the parlor. She went out and purchased five small oil paintings by the American impressionist Theodore Robinson.

Those who knew her scratched their heads.

"Everyone expected she would put up more photographs or knickknacks or cloths. Instead she bought these very modern paintings, which nobody in his right mind would buy," explains Nancy Hirschland Ramage, Professor Emerita of Art History at Ithaca College, and great-great-niece of the Cones. "When Etta bought those paintings by Theodore Robinson, no one knew what made her do that, except that she had an innate sense for strong beautiful art."

At this time, no one in the Cone family had any experience in the visual arts, nor was impressionism a particularly popular art form at the time. What gave such an untrained eye the keenness to perceive excellent, avant-garde art is still a mystery.

In 1901, Etta traveled to Europe for the first time, under the wings of the Stein siblings.  Over the next two decades, Etta, and often Claribel, traveled numerous times to Paris, where Leo helped foster the sisters' appreciation for the kind of art that made others squirm, introducing them personally to the likes of Picasso and Matisse.

When the sisters met Matisse for the first time, the artist was a young man living nearly a beggar's existence, trying to eke out a living creating art that nobody seemed to care about. But the sisters found him and his off-the-wall art interesting. Yellow Pottery from Provence was the first of his oil paintings they purchased, a simple still life, but abstract enough to jar the common art collector. From these early introductions; the sisters found a new friend and inspiration; Matisse found an unlikely source of patronage. In the years between 1905 and 1949, the twosome purchased closed to 200 works by Matisse, including 42 paintings, 18 bronzes, and 113 drawings.

A Step Ahead

Today, the art world--both on the European and American front--owes much to the Cones, but it didn't realize it at the time. In the early 1900s, as the sisters were parading around Europe, Africa, and Asia, buying up unusual art, the Baltimore aristocracy, of which they were a part, stood back in near scorn.

"They didn't care what anybody else thought. They were really gutsy women who followed their own taste and bought modern--and at the time outrageous--paintings and sculptures. Most other people at the time thought they were crazy purchases," says Ramage, "especially since they came from Baltimore which was a very conservative city at the time. There were precious few people who admired them or who had patience to consider what they were doing. They were thought to be outlandish women."

Perhaps the most shameless purchase the sisters made was Matisse's highly controversial painting Blue Nude. The piece portrays a buxom woman lying contortedly on a bed of grass. Unlike the graceful, feminine nude portraits typical of classical and realistic paintings, Matisse's nude was almost mannish and, well, blue.

  • Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art
  • Blue Nude, 1907. Henri Matisse.

"It's kind of ugly," Ramage admits. "The idea of painting a woman ugly was a real 'no no.' Women are supposed to be beautiful. The aggressiveness of the painting was very difficult for people to understand."

French critics went so far as to call it "indecent," "atrocious," and "reptilian."

So what made Matisse do it?

Ramage continues: "He was pushing the envelope and trying out what it would look like to use wild colors and wild shapes for something that is recognizable."

For Matisse, pieces like this were less about beauty and more about experimentation, more about breaking norms than following conventions. Claribel, no longer the woman who stood baffled at the 1905 exhibit, finally understood what the artist was doing and purchased the painting for 120,760 francs.

Today, it is one of the signature pieces of their collection.


Neither of the sisters ever married.

Claribel made a name for herself in medicine. After graduating at the top of her class from Woman's Medical College of Baltimore, she became a physician and a pathologist. She later took a residency at Philadelphia's Blockley Hospital.

Yellow Pottery from Provence, 1905. Henri Matisse. - COURTESY OF THE BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART
  • Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art
  • Yellow Pottery from Provence, 1905. Henri Matisse.

Etta continued to run the Cone household until her mother passed away. Eventually, she, Claribel, and one of their brothers relocated to an apartment down the road from the family home. Years later, in the mid-1940s, Nancy Ramage remembers going with her mother to visit her great-great-aunt.

"My mother and she were extremely close," Ramage remembers. "We used to visit her regularly when we went to Baltimore . . . I remember her wearing large black dresses, Renaissance jewelry. She was a stunningly unusual looking lady. She was very kind to me and my brothers."

Similarly, Ramage remembers the apartment, which was even more ornately decorated than her aunt.

"I knew it was an amazing place to go, but didn't understand the significance. It was jam-packed with things. There were paintings on the walls; rugs and bookcases and chests. It was totally crowded."

There was a rumor that the sisters even stashed paintings under the bathtub to fit them into the apartment.

Claribel died in 1929, 20 years before her sister. While still in mourning, Etta received a very special visitor: Henri Matisse himself. He was in America serving as a judge at the 29th International Exhibition of Modern Painting at Carnegie Institute, and decided to stop over in Baltimore to see his patron and dear friend.

Etta later said: "Monsieur Matisse's visit was a great pleasure and a rare experience. He is a man of  . . . fine chivalrous quality."

This friendship continued to mature over the next two decades, Matisse ultimately creating a total of 10 portraits of the sisters.

Not long after Clairbel's death, Etta decided to memorialize her sister by putting together an illustrated catalogue of their collection. The book was published in 1934 and titled The Cone Collection of Baltimore, Maryland: Catalogue of Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.

By this point, the world was catching on. As modern art was becoming more popular, the sisters' collection now seemed far less absurd and much more appealing.

Art historian and philosopher Dr. George Boas wrote about the legacy of the collection in his forward to Etta's book: "[The Cone Collection was] a cross-section of modern French art that is valuable to the student as to the amateur. In it one can see not only the most complete representation of the modern masters, Henri Matisse, but also excellent examples of his predecessors and contemporaries. It is rare that any collection is so complete a picture of an artistic movement."

Etta seemed to know that they had amassed an aggregate group of masterpieces, and decided to bequeath the entire collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art upon her death.

Two Girls, Red and Green Background, 1947 © 2013 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Two Girls, Red and Green Background, 1947 © 2013 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In 1949, at the age of 79, Etta purchased her last Matisse, Two Girls, Red and Green Background, a happy, celebratory piece that art historian Jack Flam describes as giving off "vivacious energy." Perhaps Etta subconsciously purchased it as an unintended tribute to the twosome.

That same year, she passed away.

In his eulogy to Etta, Rabbi Morris S. Lazaron said: "How sensitive she was! How exact, discriminating, and exquisite her taste. Her sensitivity was a native endowment. Her taste was her own achievement, won through long, earnest study and the most rigid, self-imposed disciplines. She not only appreciated beauty and the arts; she knew and understood them."

Matisse died six years later at the age of 84; then a well-respected and appreciated master of his craft.

Years after his grandfather's death, Matisse's grandson Claude Duthuit recalled the artist's appreciation for his unexpected friends: "Matisse said that had it not been for the Russians and the Americans, my family and I would have starved. And when he talked of the Americans, of course, he was talking about the Steins and the Cones. My family owes a lot to the Cones."

Add a comment