Blog / Baltimore Ladies


Henri Matisse fondly called Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone “my two Baltimore ladies.” The two Cone sisters began buying art directly out of the Parisian studios of avant-garde artists in 1905. At a time when critics disparaged Matisse, and Pablo Picasso was virtually unknown, the Cones followed their passions and amassed one of the world’s greatest art collections. The exhibition tells this story and features more than 50 of these masterpieces–including paintings, sculptures and works on paper by Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Renoir, van Gogh, Pissarro, Courbet and more–on loan from The Baltimore Museum of Art.

In addition to modern masterpieces, the exhibition includes textiles and decorative arts from Europe, Asia and Africa that the Cones collected, as well as photographs and archival materials to highlight the remarkable lives of these sisters. Also featured in the exhibition will be an interactive virtual tour of their adjoining Baltimore apartments, showing their remarkable collection as it was displayed in their home.

Claribel and Etta Cone were dignified and stately Victorian ladies from a prosperous family in Baltimore. Their older brother, Moses, made his fortune in the North Carolina textile industry and sent them enough income to live independently and follow their passions for traveling and collecting art.

The sisters were best friends; they never married and lived in adjoining apartments that grew crowded with art. Their personalities were quite different, however. Claribel, the eldest by six years, went to medical school and became one of the world’s first female physicians. She was bold and confident, while her sister Etta was timid and spent much of her life taking care of family members. While Etta seemed overpowered by her sister, she made most of the decisions when it came to buying art.

The sisters dressed in conservative floor-length black skirts and voluminous petticoats long after they went out of style, yet their taste in art was hardly Victorian. They loved daring nudes, still life paintings in intense colors and dreamy landscapes. They favored modern paintings by artists practically unknown to their peers: Cezanne, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir. In the early 1900s, the Cone sisters became close friends with Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo, and traveled with them through Paris and other European cities, visiting museums, galleries and artist studios–and buying art.

Claribel died in 1929, but Etta went on acquiring art and filling holes in their collection throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s before her death in 1949. Etta bequeathed the entire collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art: paintings, sculpture, works on paper, fabrics from around the world, precious lace dating from the Renaissance, jewelry in exotic gold and silver settings. After the Baltimore museum made its selections, the rest of the collection went to the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina, now the Weatherspoon Art Museum. The Cone sisters had amassed one of the most important modern art collections of the 20th century.

The Cone sisters lived like two Victorian ladies, but they were clearly ahead of their time. Their taste in avant-garde art amazed their contemporaries. Art critics disparaged Matisse at the time, and Pablo Picasso was virtually unknown. Undaunted, the Cones followed their passions.

Have you made a discovery that’s too futuristic for most to understand? A new sport, work of art, fashion statement, piece of music — leave us a comment about what might “catch on” someday.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Etta Cone at age 18-19 wearing a riding outfit, late 1880s. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, EC.1; Claribel Cone as a resident physician at the Philadelphia Hospital, approximately age 27, circa 1891-1892. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, CC.2.

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