The current Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition, “A Modern Influence: Henry Matisse, Etta Cone, and Baltimore,” recalls the intimate relationship between the artist and the legendary art collecting Cone sisters who acquired more than 700 works by the famed French painter between 1906 and 1949.
Etta Cone first met Matisse in 1906 when the American art collector Sarah Stein took her to his Paris studio. From that first meeting, where she purchased several drawings, evolved a friendship that lasted nearly half a century.
Etta’s sister, Dr. Claribel Cone, was a scientist, physician and feminist, in addition to being an art connoisseur.
“Dr. Cone was unable to escape the attention which she received as an art collector and her collection of Matisse was probably the largest in America, and its fame even spread to Europe,” reported The Evening Sun when she died at 65 in 1929, while visiting Lausanne, Switzerland.
The two unmarried sisters lived in an apartment on the eighth floor of the Marlborough on Eutaw Place with their brother Dr. Frederick Cone. They were surrounded there, the Evening Sun reported, by “a veritable museum of rare art treasures. She [Claribel] had gathered most of them herself in journeys around the world, though her sister helped assemble the Matisse canvases.”
The newspaper noted that the Saturday night parties that they threw in their apartment were “Baltimore’s nearest approach to a salon that the city ever knew.”
“Room after room is filled with priceless art treasures. There are Oriental wedding veils, Asiatic shawls, Persian embroideries ... Florentine boxes, Spanish chests, prayer rugs from the East and bronzes cast in the days of Rameses II,” observed the newspaper. “Most significant, is the collection of ultra-modern paintings. In addition to the canvases of Matisse, there are others by Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Bazille.”
So extensive were their holdings, the sisters didn’t think twice about hanging artwork in their bathrooms.
Even though Claribel had died a year earlier, Etta continued her friendship with Matisse, who arrived in New York Dec. 15, 1930, aboard the Cunard Lines’ RMS Mauretania, and then boarded a train for Baltimore.
He declined to say who his hosts were to be while staying in the city, reported The Baltimore Sun the next day, which said he also was coming to Baltimore to paint street scenes. Of course, he stayed with Etta and Frederick at the Marlborough.
Matisse told The Evening Sun that the city with its “stoops and red brick facades,” very much reminded him of London.
“There is an aspect of composure and leisure about Baltimore that other large cities of the world do not have,” he told a reporter.
“Matisse is a small, quiet man who has the air of serenity about him, who speaks softly, directly and simply and who seems to be utterly self-contained and self-possessed,” wrote A.D. Emmart, art critic for The Sun. “Miss Cone and her late sister were among the first American collectors to have recognized the genius of the French artist who has since come to hold an unequivocal place at the very top of contemporary painting.”
Matisse was 61 at the time of his visit “but he moves and speaks with a restraint of energy, an economy of gesture which speaks of great resources. He is a short compact figure, very straight-shouldered, and almost — in quite the best sense — military in bearing,” Emmart wrote. “His hands are like the hands of a sculptor, his eyes as steady as a marksman.”
Emmart added: “But it is hard not to sense in even a most casual meeting that in this man who wears a white beard and spectacles and spats over his extremely small shoes those elements of greatness, of precision, of rhythm, flowing harmony and subtle distinction of color, that now are so overwhelmingly recognized in his canvasses.”
Apparently, during his stay, Matisse did not open his paint box and paint those marble steps and facades he so enthusiastically praised, even though a Sun editorial hoped he would, and that the city would make it “into the canvas of serious artist” who was the “prince of Modernists.”
Etta was 78 when she died in 1949, and Matisse was 84 when he died five years later.
Under the terms of Claribel’s will, the Cone Collection, with a $100,000 fund for “housing, preserving and maintaining the collection,” would be left to the BMA after the death of her sister, but there was one more condition of the gift: “Only if the spirit of appreciation of Modern Art improved.”
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The current Matisse exhibition ends Jan. 2. The museum is temporarily closed due to rising COVID concerns with plans to reopen Dec. 29.