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‘A coup for Baltimore’: BMA’s new Matisse Center makes city a top destination for students of modern art

Baltimore MD is about to become Matisse HQ.

The Baltimore Museum of Art will open a new Matisse center next month, inviting scholars, curators and visitors to delve deep into the world’s largest public collection of the works of the famed French artist.

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Coupled with the BMA’s holdings of Matisse — including some 1,200 paintings, sculptures and drawings — the research center is expected to provide Baltimore an international cachet and propel the city to a top global destination for those seeking to learn more about the 20th-century painter and sculptor who, with his friend and rival Pablo Picasso, helped usher in the era of modern art.

“This really is a coup for Baltimore,” said Ellen McBreen, a Matisse scholar who co-curated a high-profile 2017 exhibit of the artist’s work that was shown in Boston and London. “Anyone interested in the history of modern art in the 20th century is going to come to your city.”

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But the museum world’s big guns are unlikely to let Baltimore establish its supremacy in matters Matisse without putting up a fight. Philadelphia and New York boast world-class collections of the artist’s work. France, where Matisse lived, has two museums dedicated exclusively to showcasing his genius.

Russia’s State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, whose Matisse holdings include two spectacular and historically important paintings, responded to an inquiry from The Baltimore Sun with the equivalent of a politely raised eyebrow.

“In regards to the Matisse studies, we think that every museum and research institution is important in its own way,” an official for the director’s office wrote in an email.

Construction of the new 2,500-square foot Matisse Center within museum walls was financed by a $5 million gift in 2019 from the Baltimore-based Ruth Carol Fund, a foundation that supports the arts, education and medical research.

Precisely how Baltimore positioned itself to become the top paintbrush in Matisse studies is the subject of “A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone, and Baltimore,” a sumptuous exhibit running at the BMA through Jan. 2. More than 160 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and illustrated books explore the 43-year friendship between the artist who upended staid European visual culture and a Jewish textile heiress in Baltimore who became a lifelong champion of his work.

One of the exhibit’s key insights is that Matisse believed the Baltimore museum might one day become a showcase for his work, and actively attempted to ensure that the collection here was as strong as possible.

“Matisse is the artist who more than any other connects the past to the present and the future,” BMA director Christopher Bedford said.

“He opened so many doors, and not just for himself but for others. He feels extremely present to me in the imaginations of artists working today from Ellsworth Kelly to Tschabalala Self to Stanley Whitney. Matisse has become a fascinating bridge between times and cultures.”

In many ways, the painter and his patron were an odd couple. He was a law clerk-turned artist who didn’t pick up a paintbrush until he was 20. A consummate workaholic and the married father of three, Matisse had been dubbed a “fauvist” or “wild beast” by critics scandalized by a 1905 showing of his work.

“It was not a compliment,” said senior curator Katy Rothkopf.

Emilie Parker, left, of Monrovia, California, and Kris Juffer of Ellicott City, right, look at "Large Seated Nude," a sculpture by Henri Matisse, at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Emilie Parker, left, of Monrovia, California, and Kris Juffer of Ellicott City, right, look at "Large Seated Nude," a sculpture by Henri Matisse, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

Etta Cone, the ninth of 13 children, was the family caretaker. She kept house for her father and nursed her brothers when they fell ill. For much of her life, she was overshadowed by her brilliant and charismatic older sister, the physician Claribel Cone. But the exhibit makes the case that Etta Cone’s demure demeanor masked an underlying boldness and willingness to flout convention in her choice of artwork and in her personal life.

The Cone sisters were introduced to Matisse in early 1906 by their close friends and neighbors, the siblings Leo, Michael and Gertrude Stein. Etta Cone typed the manuscript for Gertrude Stein’s “Three Lives” from the author’s handwriting, and an essay in the exhibition catalog explores the possibility that the two women were romantically involved.

Despite their differences, Matisse quickly established a rapport with the Cone sisters — and in particular, with Etta, who purchased her first painting from him within a year of their initial meeting.

“They exchanged birthday greetings and Christmas cards,” Rothkopf said. “Etta bought Matisse’s grandson, Claude, his first bicycle. The family used that bicycle to get rations during the Second World War.”

Baltimore might never had acquired the collection it has now had not Matisse visited the city in 1930 while working on a massive mural commissioned by Philadelphia collector Albert Barnes. Matisse wished to personally pay his condolences to Etta Cone, who was mourning the death of her sister the previous year.

The visit was considered a newsworthy event by Maryland journalists; a headline in the Dec. 18, 1930, Baltimore Sun reads “Noted French Painter in City” above a photograph of the bespectacled, bearded artist.

Matisse, who felt underappreciated in his native land, was flattered by the attention he received in the U.S. In September 1930, he told a reporter for The New York Evening Post, “there is much more respect for artists in America than in France.”

Matisse also knew that Etta Cone was considering bequeathing her collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art. In the interest of ensuring that collection — and his legacy — was as strong as possible, he began setting aside artworks for her consideration. In 1946, Matisse wrote a letter to his art dealer son, Pierre Matisse, asking that Etta Cone be given priority for future acquisitions.

“My interest in Miss Cone, beyond considering her one of my best clients,” Matisse wrote, “lies in the fact that she is forming a museum in which I am as largely represented as possible ... that is one reason I give her my best.”

The Cone collection came to the BMA following Etta Cone’s death in 1949; the museum subsequently acquired an additional 600 of the artist’s works from other donors, including the Matisse family.

It’s one thing for a museum to have a lot of artworks by a pioneering painter and to display them in its galleries. It’s another matter to delve deeply into that artist’s correspondence and old catalogs of his work, to study the dozen preparatory sketches he made for a landmark painting, to nail down his contribution to art history.

"Still Life, Bouquet Of Dahlias and White Book," a 1923 painting by Henri Matisse, is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"Still Life, Bouquet Of Dahlias and White Book," a 1923 painting by Henri Matisse, is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

The Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies is the culmination of discussions that began about five years ago between Rothkopf and Jay McKean Fisher, an emeritus senior curator at the BMA. It will open the same day and be adjacent to the museum’s new Center for Prints, Drawings and Photographs.

“I realize that a Matisse Center might strike some as elitist,” McBreen said. “‘Who cares about a bunch of scholars looking at materials?’ But that’s the way artworks stay relevant and the way museums stay relevant. The artworks and archival materials don’t change, but the questions you bring to them do.”

Besides, those important questions won’t be posed only by people with an alphabet soup of Ph.D.s and MFAs after their names. Every museumgoer, from first-time visitors to your tenth grader’s beginning drawing class, will have an unprecedented opportunity to get up close and personal with great works of art.

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Like all museums, just a tiny fraction of the 95,000 artworks in the BMA’s collection are on view in the galleries. The remainder are in storage.

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But about two-thirds of the BMA’s collection consists of works on paper. Starting this spring, members of the public can make an appointment to examine any one of them in the study center, from an etching by Rembrandt to a sketch made by Matisse for Stéphane Mallarme’s book of poems to a photograph by Carrie Mae Weems.

“The extraordinary advantage of works on paper is that they are portable,” Bedford said. “We want to make the direct study of objects and artworks available to everyone.”

If you go

The Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies, 10 Art Museum Drive. opens Dec. 12. A community celebration will be held that day from noon to 5 p.m., featuring storytelling, art-making, performances, and free admission to the ticketed exhibition, “A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone, and Baltimore.” The exhibit runs through Jan. 2. Admission on other days costs $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, and $5 for students and children ages 7 to 18. For details, call 443-573-1701 or visit artbma.org.

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