By Geoffrey Mock
I was introduced to the amazing Cone Sisters of Baltimore and their magnificent collection when I was nine years old. The meeting has stuck with me four decades later, my mother made sure of that.
The year was 1969, and I spent one memorable week in the summer in an art camp at The Baltimore Museum of Art. The first day we learned about the Cone Collection and the story of how two Baltimore sisters became one of the most intelligent art collectors of their time. They willed their holdings to Baltimore with the caveat that this blue collar city should prove worthy of a modern art collection and pride themselves for meeting the will’s challenge.
I mention the will because the Cones knew that their hometown is not a natural choice for a remarkable modern art collection. One memory of the museum is standing in front of three smaller works by Henri Matisse, spread out chronologically from his early realist works through a period of experimentation to a final stage of near complete abstraction. Next to me in front of the works were two dignified Baltimore matrons, women probably not unlike the Cone sisters before they headed to Europe for an education in art. One remarked on his early realist work, the first of the trio, “By the time he started doing this, he was getting pretty good!” sounding like she was trying to be positive about a failing artist.
But Matisse’s later, great works grabbed me from the very first day. His colors and bold lines took hold of my imagination immediately. I saw the Picassos, the Cezannes and other post-impressionists, but it was Matisse that stuck with me.
On the last day of the camp, when we were told to go out on our own throughout the museum and select one work to copy, I headed straight to one of Matisse’s most accomplished work. Yes, I thought Large Reclining Nude would be fun and a bit naughty, but I was also inspired. In Matisse’s hold, I felt a fluidity of line, a feeling for color, and an understanding of flow and composition that was beyond my age and that I would never ever feel again. Four decades later, I am still incompetent in the most basic of drawing skills. At age 9, the Matisse reproduction was the pinnacle of my talents.
That afternoon, I took my Large Reclining Nude reproduction home to show my mother. I remember she gave a slight exclamation, and I took that as a complement. She took the painting and patted me on the back. I didn’t think twice when she took it into my father’s office and placed it in the closet. It never left its hiding place, and as the years went by I thought of it less. And come to think about it, I never went to another art camp.
Fast forward some 25 years later, to a dinner the night before my wedding here in Durham. It’s a fun occasion, in a little room at Spartacus, and with the blur of activities involved in the wedding, I’m not paying much attention to what’s being said at the table. People start making toasts.
My mother stands up, and she’s going to say something embarrassing to me. I know that’s her job. As she starts talking, she leans down and picks up a rolled up package. I can’t make out all that she’s saying because I’m focusing on what she’s holding and trying to figure out what it is. Finally she unravels it, and Large Reclining Nude is exposed, to great laughter.
My reaction was stunned. And delighted. Looking at it as a 36-year-old, my reproduction didn’t look so impressive, even as a work of a child. But it felt like a personal treasure, something special that had been forgotten, buried but recovered.
I’m left with two lessons from Large Reclining Nude. One is that of all the gifts one can receive, something that can take you back to when you were nine, and restore a moment of pride felt back then – from an age when pride and joy and excitement are felt most intensely — must be among the most special.
My mother died of cancer four years later. I don’t know why she kept Large Reclining Nude all these years, but I feel that whatever misgivings she had, she also shared some of that pride, and at the moment of my wedding, wanted to express it in a way that would be meaningful to me. We didn’t know it at the time, but she was also giving me a gift that was one of the best ways for me to remember the best in her after she was gone.
The second lesson is people who think that modern art is so easy a 9 year old can do it are spectacularly wrong. What is true is there’s something inherent in modern art, and Matisse in particular, that can ignite the imagination of a child. This is something I deeply hope many boys and girls will discover over the next few months of the exhibition at the Nasher Museum.
Photos by J Caldwell.
Henri Matisse, Large Reclining Nude, 1935. Oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 36 ¾ inches (66.4 x 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. © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.