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This article by F.R. Rivera was prepared for the July 16, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Must-See Art in Baltimore
Surely no city has more allure as a summertime art destination than Paris. But for those of us stuck close to home, the School of Paris is no further than a drive down Interstate 95. Thanks to two of Baltimore’s well-traveled and well-heeled citizens, Claribel and Etta Cone, one of the world’s premiere collections of 20th-century French art is within easy reach at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Founded in 1914, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) may have begun its existence as an undistinguished institution. But in less than 40 years it took on a new mantle as a national treasure and a repository for the great art of the 20th century. It became a "must see" destination for art lovers worldwide. The change was heralded by the Cone Bequest, made in 1950 and opened to the public in 1957. In 2001, the museum’s new installation of the Cone Collection, vastly improved from all earlier versions, was unveiled.
When BMA was founded, the Cone sisters, Dr. Claribel Cone (1864-1929) and Etta Cone (1870-1949) had already made several trips to Europe, encouraged by fellow Baltimore resident Leo Stein, brother of Gertrude. Stein advised and — at the beginning — virtually dictated the sisters’ art purchases.
The glory of this museum as we know it today is, therefore, the story of two great families, the Steins and the Cones. It is also the story of money and taste, and a passion for acquisition. By the time the present structure was built in 1929, the Cone sisters had amassed a multi-million dollar collection. Not only had they acquired the most important Matisses and early Picassos ever made, but they also had other masters of early 20th century French art. When the museum opened, they had already been collecting the work of Henri Matisse for 23 years; and his work had clearly become the centerpiece of their collection.
After 1907, they virtually ceased buying the work of Picasso, following the lead of Leo Stein. They were shocked by Picasso’s shift from his late Harlequin period to Cubism. Whereas Matisse remained a lifelong beneficiary of the Cones’ largess, Picasso did not. He did not take his loss of it lightly, and pursued the Cones — through his friend Gertrude Stein — into the next decade.
The only faintly "difficult" Picasso in the Cone Collection, according to Picasso’s biographer John Richardson, is "Nu a la draperie" (1907). Etta purchased it from Gertrude Stein in the early 1930s when Stein was strapped for money.
The association of the Cones and the Steins began when Claribel and Gertrude met at the Johns Hopkins Medical School where they were both students. Their friendship grew and blossomed in Europe, when the two sisters, along with their cousin Hortense and Gertrude, shed their Victorian airs and romped — smoking and drinking — through Italy and France.
It continued later in Paris when Etta volunteered to type Gertrude’s book "Three Lives" (before the arrival of Alice B. Toklas) and during a period when Gertrude and Leo shared a studio on the Left Bank. It was during this period that the Cones visited the Bateau Lavoir, where Picasso has his studio; he worked at night by an oil lamp and slept during the day. On this visit, the Cones bought 11 drawings and 7 etchings for a total of 175 francs — that’s about $2 each.
The sisters bought their first Matisse in 1906. Sally Stein, who was married to Leo’s and Gertrude’s brother Michael, was a student of Matisse and took Etta to the painter’s studio. The contrast between Picasso and Matisse was astonishing — particularly their demeanor. Matisse was professorial and articulate, while Picasso — who
carried a Browning pistol — was aptly described by his mistress Fernande Olivier as a "small gangster."
At the time, Matisse’s paintings were far more radical than Picasso’s.
Matisse’s work in the 1905 Fall Salon exhibition in Paris had been ridiculed and attacked by public and critics alike. Even Claribel reportedly wondered whether this "Fauve" (or "wild beast") could be taken seriously. No such doubts were harbored by Leo Stein, who offered Matisse 400 francs for what is today a priceless masterpiece,
"Femme au Chapeau." Stein’s offer was 50 francs less than the asking price. The impoverished Matisse, however, 35 years old, cut of from his father’s stipend and subsisting on rice, held out for 450 francs — the equivalent of about $100.
As Gertrude later wrote, the difference between a sale and a gift was
negligible during this period. Nonetheless, Matisse prevailed. Etta watched Leo’s negotiations with great interest and may well have made up her mind that moment to become a life-long patron of this courageous young artist.
Years later, she lovingly complained when Matisse raised his prices, saying, "Monsieur Matisse, remember I helped make you." He corrected her, "No, Mademoiselle, I made you!"
A Visual Banquet
The Cone Collection is a visual banquet for even the most demanding and greedy of Matisse enthusiasts. Many examples of work done during the artist’s 35-year residence in Nice, filled with his glittering Mediterranean light, are here. The work is lush and sensate, expressing perfectly Matisse’s "art of balance, purity, and serenity," an art as comfortable as "a good armchair."
Matisse sought through his painting to give balm to the injured and comfort to the troubled. The harmony of all the parts that he seems to achieve so effortlessly is realized only through a laborious process of corrections and edits. In response to negative criticism, Matisse wrote in 1908, "I do not repudiate any of my paintings, but there is not one of them that I would not redo."
This philosophy, set forth in "Notes of a Painter" (published in "La Grande Revue"), is best illustrated by "The Pink Nude" (1935). The odyssey the artist follows before bringing the image to completion is documented in a remarkable series of 22 photographs. Matisse sent the photos to Etta, who promptly bought the painting when it was declared "finished."
Whereas the Steins were moderately rich, the Cones were fabulously wealthy. According to Mary Gabriel’s book "The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone," the sisters spent $6,700 on art during the summer of 1923, while the average American was earning about $760 annually. Two years later, in 1925, Gabriel writes, Claribel purchased an important version of Cezanne’s "Mont
Sainte Victoire" for just under $20,000, or about 10 times the annual salary of a white collar worker. Gabriel writes that when it came time to pay Picasso for his 1922 portrait, Claribel Cone hoisted up her skirt and pulled banknotes from a hidden pocket.
The Cone fortune came from textiles, from a product that was at least as American as Coca-Cola — blue jeans. Brother Moses Cone was known to all competitors as the "denim king." In 1908, his three mills in North Carolina were the largest producer of denim in the world. Denim was the great enabler; it financed a lavish family estate at Blowing Rock and ultimately, one of the most important private art collections in the world.
During the World War I years, the Cones did well. Since denim supplied the military, production increased, along with capital gains. Even with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, sheltered deposits insulated Etta from the devastating effects sustained by others.
The year of the Crash was also the year of Claribel’s death. Now out of the shadow of her beloved older sibling, Etta was no longer obligated to consult when she went shopping for art. And shopping she did — ardently — for the next two decades.
In the museum, even the Central Rotunda of the collection invites and engages with a single painting on each wall. The former, chilly cavernous galleries have been redesigned into eight warmer, more intimate spaces. Period frames have been returned to the paintings. The works have been redistributed, grouped by size, theme, and period.
If you doubt that this very personal, once very private, collection has made a seamless transition into a museum space, one look at an interactive computer graphic will persuade you otherwise. In the Interpretive Gallery, there is an extraordinary computer simulation of the Cones’ Eutaw Place apartments. A touch-sensitive screen permits the visitor to take a virtual walk through the collection, as it would have appeared at home with Etta and Claribel on a sunny afternoon in Baltimore.
The museum also includes a re-creation of one of the apartment rooms,
containing other collectibles. The sisters amassed 18th and 19th century jewelry, furniture, textiles, Oriental rugs, Renaissance keys, ivory carvings, bronze sculpture, and more. If it was collectible, they collected it. Between 1898 and 1949, when Etta died, they had acquired more than 3,000 objects, including the paintings, of which only about 120 can be displayed at any one time.
Today the sisters’ collection is valued at about $1 billion.
— F.R. Rivera
Charles and 31st Streets (three miles north of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor), Baltimore, Maryland. 410-396-7100. www.ARTBMA.org.
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