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The Cone Sisters of Baltimore

ISBN: 0-8101-2481-5

By: Ellen B. Hrischland and Nancy Hirschland Ramage
Reviewer: Cheryl Townsend

January 2009

I think this is my most enjoyed book of the year. Etta and Claribel Cone are a delightful duo. Told by the niece and great niece, this is the life of two “spinster” sisters who amassed a staggering collection of art from “radical, disreputable artists” that eventually became its own wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Their father and mother were Jewish immigrants from Germany with a history of hard work, success and generosity. Via their inheritance (and a substantial allowance from their successful brother’s textiles business), they start collecting art from, at the time, unappreciated artists such as Picasso, Degas, Matisse, Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, and other, as yet, famous artists of the early 1900s.

Most art collectors thought them crazy and monetarily wasteful, scoffing at their art selections only to grovel later to acquire their collection for their representative museums. They bought whatever they liked, with little, if any, concern as to future value.

Though extremely prim and proper themselves, they never shied away from provocative art, hanging several nudes prominently in their apartments, such as Matisse’s “Blue Nude,” which caused scandalous reviews & the burning of copies in effigy by Chicago art students.

Etta first traveled to Paris, where she met Gertrude and Leo Stein, who subsequently introduced her to Picasso and Matisse. The rest, as they say, is history. Binding friendships soon ensued and Etta began the collection with five paintings by Theodore Robinson in 1898. With Leo as her first and foremost advisor, Etta is soon snapping up piece after piece, mostly to help financially strapped artists. Soon, nearly every available inch of their small, adjoining Marlborough building apartments in Baltimore was covered in art of all sizes, even the bathroom. (Imagine hanging a Matisse in your bathroom?)

Claribel earned a degree in medicine and worked as a physician at the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane. She also studied Botany and became a lecturer and professor of pathology and pathological history while also working at the college’s hospital. She never had patients, only taught.

Etta, the youngest of 11 children, was an accomplished pianist and her parent’s keeper until their deaths, hence her more timid and demure nature.

Via both their friendships with Stein, they were active in Women’s Suffrage, yet, ironically, renowned for their eccentric attire, favoring their long black skirts and white petticoats, where a secret pocket kept all their traveling and art buying money.

Their sexuality was often questioned, assuredly due to their friendship with Gertrude, but never an issue, (though Stein’s lover, Alice B. Toklas remained jealous of the friendship throughout.)

Claribel died first, willing her collection to Etta, who died in 1949. Prior to her death, Etta was courted relentlessly for her art collection but it eventually was donated to their hometown museum. The Cone wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art now contains over 3000 works, 500 of which are by Matisse with an estimated value of one billion dollars.

Included in all the family history and personals are quite elaborate histories behind the art pieces they bought, excerpts from actual letters from Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and the sisters themselves, and Ellen’s own memories of trips with her aunts to buy art and tour Paris.

Within the appendixes are Claribel’s “Introductory Address to the Medical Class of the Woman’s Medical College” from 1896, a list of her published papers, several writings on their collection from American artist, Shelby Shackelford and John Hopkins Professor of Philosophy, George Boas.

The book is oversized, (an excellent coffee table book) and loaded with color reproductions of many of their pieces. A fascinating read that gives me further impetus to buy, buy, buy--even if everyone thinks I’m crazy and monetarily wasteful.


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