A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone and Baltimore
Most great art museums, especially in the United States, aim to build representative collections of art from around the world, past to present. Some institutions, however, are known for having rich selections of the oeuvre of particular artists.
The Whitney Museum in New York City, for instance, is the premier site for studying the works of Edward Hopper. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is particularly well-endowed with paintings by Claude Monet and John Singer Sargent. But if you want to appreciate the art of Henri Matisse, you really need to make a pilgrimage to Baltimore.
The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is currently presenting an outstanding exhibition highlighting the astonishing collection of modern art amassed by Claribel Cone and Etta Cone. These two sisters from Baltimore, born in the mid-1800's, lived outwardly conventional lives, while nurturing a passion for modern art, especially for the work of Matisse.
The BMA exhibition is entitled A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone and Baltimore, appearing from October 3, 2021–January 2, 2022. Approximately 160 works of art by Matisse - paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and illustrated books - are on view in this insightful examination of the partnership which transformed America's appreciation of modern art.
Also of note, a new facility for art scholarship, the Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies, has just opened at the BMA, enabling access to the BMA’s Matisse collection and related resources, after the exhibition closes.
A Modern Influence focuses on the role of the younger of the sisters, Etta, and her enduring friendship with Matisse. But a brief introduction to the lives and joint endeavor of Claribel Cone and Etta Cone is in order.
The Cone family initially lived in the southern states of the U.S. before settling in Baltimore. The two sisters were expected to devote themselves to the realm of family and their Jewish faith. Claribel Cone, born in 1864, and Etta Cone, born in 1870, certainly maintained the ties of their large and loving family. But the strong-willed Claribel, who earned a medical degree in 1890, then a very rare accomplishment for women, and Etta found an unexpected way to assert themselves. They became quiet revolutionaries in the cause of modern art.
It was the more domestically-inclined Etta who initiated the creation of the Cone art collection in 1898. In that year, her brother Moses gave her $300 to renovate the family home in Baltimore. Etta, at age 28, was well on her way to being a Victorian maiden aunt, dutiful and dedicated to hearth and home. She was the perfect family member to buy new curtains, carpets and other accessories for the Cone residence at Eutaw Place in Baltimore.
Instead, Etta bought five paintings by the American Impressionist painter, Theodore Robinson.
In 1898, works by the French Impressionist masters were only beginning to be accepted in the United States. The cachet of European Old Master art in Gilded Age America reigned supreme, as wealthy Americans like Henry Frick purchased works by Holbein and Rembrandt by the cart-load.
Etta’s selection of Robinson’s impressionistic works, painted around 1888, was notable on two counts. As well as being an act of self-assertion on Etta’s part, her choice of Robinson’s paintings marked the beginning of a significant moment of transition in the American art scene. The tide had begun to turn away from ignoring contemporary artists, especially Americans. Etta Cone - perhaps instinctively - was one of the first to take advantage of this cultural shift.
The profits from the Cone family textile business provided a modest allowance to both Claribel and Etta, insuring their financial independence. By 1900, Dr. Claribel Cone was a highly regarded pathologist. Her work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore brought her into contact with an aspiring medical student named Gertrude Stein. As events were to show, Gertrude Stein’s future lay in the realm of the arts, not the sciences.
In 1901, Claribel and Etta took the first of many trips to Europe. The two sisters engaged in two of their favorite pursuits, visiting art museums and shopping for exquisite laces and other textiles, as well as small objects d’art. Where their limited funds allowed, they also purchased Japanese prints. Their guide during their early visits to Europe was Leo Stein, brother to Gertrude.
Four years later, now in the company of Gertrude Stein, these otherwise conventional ladies from Baltimore confronted the “shocking” rebellion of artists deemed the “New Barbarians” and “Fauves” or wild beasts. They visited the 1905 Salon d’Automne, the pivotal exhibition when the new art and “old guard” criticism dramatically crossed swords. Henri Matisse was particularly targeted for abuse.
“We asked ourselves are these things to be taken seriously,” Claribel later noted. But when the Steins bought a work by Matisse, Etta followed suit, purchasing Yellow Pottery from Provence, remarkable for its color scheme, if conventional by the standard of other works by Matisse from the period.
If Matisse hoped for further sales to the Cone sisters, it would many years before they opened their purses to make another significant purchase. Moses Cone died in 1908, leaving a grieving Etta with more family duties to perform. Claribel devoted increasing periods of her time to medical research, much of it in Germany. She was marooned in Germany in 1914 when World War I broke out, remaining there even when the U.S. entered the war.
Reunited with her family in 1918, Claribel now joined with Etta in their second and major round of art acquisitions. In 1922, the Cone sisters returned to Europe with ample funds provided by the huge profits the family company had made during the war. Though the sisters bought widely, including Claribel’s expenditure in 1925 of $18,860 for Paul Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry, their artist of choice was Henri Matisse.
The particular appeal of Matisse’s art for the Cones can be traced to several sources. Both Matisse and the Cone sisters loved the “outward appearance” of objects, particularly hand-woven textiles. The myriad ways in which fabrics can transform a physical environment or a person’s physique appealed to the French painter and his "Baltimore ladies."
Matisse was born in the town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis in northern France, a region that had been prominent in textile production as far back as the Middle Ages. He was the son and grandson of weavers. And of course, the Cone sisters’ disposable income for art purchases came from the cotton mills established by their brothers in North Carolina. Matisse and the Cones were kindred spirits in the love of beautiful cloth.
During the 1920′s, Matisse hearkened back to the Odalisque paintings of Ingres, Delacroix and other painters of the 19th century Romantic tradition. But as the decade progressed, Matisse began moving beyond the erotic appeal of the semi-clothed odalisques. Instead, Matisse evoked an amazing degree of sensuousness from textures of exotic clothing and draperies, carpets and wall hangings.
The emotional charge of the clothing of his models was to set the tone for many of Matisse’s mid-career works, several of which which Etta purchased. These include one of the "signature" works by Matisse in the BMA collection, Purple Robe with Anemones (1937). Another painting, created over three years of exhaustive labor, is equally significant and, in some ways, more intriguing: The Yellow Dress (1929-31).
There is an enigmatic element to The Yellow Dress. Matisse's model for this painting has a distant, dreamlike expression, as if she is focused on an other world. Her facial features lack the sharp definition of Matisse's odalisque or the young woman in Purple Robe with Anemones. Her face and arms seem to be fading away, leaving the shimmering yellow dress behind, wraith-like in the vibrant, well-articulated setting of the room
As Matisse labored on The Yellow Dress, Etta struggled too. Claribel's death in 1929 left her in a state of lingering shock. Etta lovingly preserved her sister’s rooms, placing fresh flowers, as if in expectation that Claribel would return. It may be reading a little too deeply into this incident, yet, I feel that The Yellow Dress may have served as testament of Etta's love for her sister and the emotional loss she felt at her passing.
Matisse and Etta Cone thus created a new partnership, closely engaged in a joint effort to carry modern art to ever greater creative heights. The most remarkable work to emerge from this visionary initiative is Large Reclining Nude, painted in 1935.
If Purple Robe with Anemones is a signature Matisse, the status of Large Reclining Nude is even higher. It is one of the true icons of Modern Art. And Etta Cone – assisted by the “ghost” of Claribel - played an important role in its creation.
When Matisse examined the massed array of his works in the Cone apartment rooms, he saw, for the first time in many years, one of his most notorious paintings, The Blue Nude (1907). This controversial work had been reviled when it was first presented, but Claribel had purchased it in 1926. After spending some time with his still infamous creation, Matisse determined to paint a matching nude, this time in a complementary color.
As he worked on Large Reclining Nude, Matisse took an elaborate series of 22 photos of the various stages or states of composition. These he sent to Etta in two letters, dated September 19th and November 16th, 1935.
Etta responded enthusiastically, “I was touched by your attempt to take my mind off things... You’ve been very successful; the first time I looked at the drawings I spent two hours totally immersed in them.. I’m waiting impatiently for the opportunity to see the finished painting of the ‘Reclining Nude.’ . . . "
By making Etta part of the creative process, Matisse recognized her aesthetic kinship. And by doing so, Matisse produced a very different masterpiece than what he had at first intended. What had begun as a naturalistic depiction of a nude woman, evolved into a new incarnation of the body, more of a symbolic presence of a body and spirit at rest.
When Large Reclining Nude reached Baltimore, Etta hung it in a rather cramped room, facing The Blue Nude. The placement of the two paintings made them appear to be "squaring-off" in a confrontation. In a sense this was true. By placing the two paintings facing each other across the room, Etta was asserting herself as an equal to Claribel, as a force in the art world to be reckoned with.
Indeed, Etta was developing into a major art scholar, as well as a patron. The year before Large Reclining Nude arrived, Etta wrote and published the catalog of the works of art she and her sister had collected. And she began to plan for the future of their collection.
Once again, she acted in concert with the spirit of Claribel. Perhaps in premonition of her death, Claribel had recommended to Etta that their joint collection be donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art “in the event the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore becomes improved.”
Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Yellow Pottery from Provence, 1906. Oil on canvas : 21 7/8 × 18 3/8 × 5/8 in. (55.6 × 46.7 × 1.6 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.227. © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent, Ornamental Background and Checkerboard, 1928. Oil on canvas: 21 5/8 × 14 7/8 in. (54.9 × 37.8 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.255. © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Purple Robe with Anemones. 1937. Oil on canvas: 28 3/4 × 23 5/8 in. (73 × 60 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.261. © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) The Yellow Dress, 1929-1931. Oil on canvas: 39 9/16 × 32 1/8 in. (100.5 × 81.6 cm.) The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland BMA 1950.256 © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Etta Cone in her apartment at the Marlborough Apartments, Baltimore, Maryland, c. 1930-1940. Claribel Cone and Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art
Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Large Reclining Nude, 1935. Oil on canvas: 26 1/8 × 36 3/4 in. (66.4 × 93.3 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland. BMA 1950.258 © Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York
Gallery view of A Modern Influence at the Baltimore Museum of Art, showing Matisse's Large Reclining Nude and preparatory sketches. Photo by Mitro Hood
Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Icarus (Icare), 1947. From the unbound volume "Jazz" published in 1947. Color stencil print (pochoir) Book Edition 227/250 (270 total edition) Sheet: 420 x 324 mm. (16 9/16 x 12 3/4 in.) The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland BMA 1950.12.745.8