by Kristie Landing
I was fortunate to start my first day as an intern at the Nasher Museum when Sarah Schroth, Interim Director and Nancy Hanks Senior Curator, was leading a tour of the exhibition, Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore. When looking at someone’s collection, I always seek to understand their choices—why they liked certain things and how that may be a reflection of their life. In this particular collection, I found sisters Claribel and Etta to be quite like the artists they supported in terms of their vanguard outlook. In the Victorian era of corsets, repressed sexuality, and intense rules about privacy, the Cone sisters were snatching up radical works by the likes of Matisse and Picasso. To me, this exhibition demonstrates how the sisters found their outlet through art—not through its creation, but through its acquisition.
The tour began with a discussion about the first piece that the Cone sisters had purchased, a Matisse entitled, Yellow Pottery from Provenance, 1905. In its day, the painting had been scorned for its “fauve” nature, particularly the unfinished edges and wild brushstrokes. Its subject matter, a teapot, certainly goes along well with the Victorian practice of High Tea and crumpets, yet, overall this painting bears none of the polish of an aristocratic afternoon. Rather, it is raw, with exposed patches of bare canvas and evidence of the artist’s painstaking process. Possibly, Etta Cone enjoyed the work simply for its bright colors and whimsical background. However, I’d like to imagine that in Yellow Pottery from Provenance, Cone saw freedom—the kind that temporarily allowed for an escape from the pomp of the Victorian noblesse.
As the tour progressed, I became more and more convinced that the sisters used art as a means to escape the world. This notion was compounded by the fact that they were never separated from their art—they literally lived with the works surrounding them in their bedrooms, hallways, and on every surface of their apartments. Imagine having a work from Picasso’s Blue Period in your kitchen! In a sense, this method of “decorating” fits perfectly with the Victorian way of life—effortless perfection and modesty on the outside, with an internalized passion and an inclination towards the eccentric. Yet, the sisters were by no means closeted. It was their public support of artists like Matisse that helped launch his career.
Etta Cone finished the collection similarly to how she began it—with a Matisse of great intrigue. Placed next to his fabulously bright Striped Robe, Fruit, and Anemones, 1940, this final Matisse drew less attention from the museum-goers on the day of the tour. Yet, upon close inspection I decided it was my favorite work in the exhibition. 42 years after Yellow Pottery From Provenance, this work, entitled Two Girls, Red and Green Background, 1947, displays the same fauve nature and brilliant coloring. In it, you’ll find two girls sitting at a table in front of a large window. Though close in proximity, they are not communicating and stare out at the viewer. Something about the way one girl scratches at her neck coupled with the light purple hue of their skin gives a sense of discomfort and longing to be elsewhere. In contrast, a brilliantly green tree has been rendered outside the window that evokes happiness and warmth. Surpassing them in beauty and size, the tree seems inviting in a simple way. I think it notable that of this work, Matisse has said, “I am certain that it will be seen as one of my best paintings.”
I have no way of knowing exactly why Etta Cone wanted Two Girls, Red and Green Background. The label says that it’s because there are two girls in it, one for Etta, and one for Claribel. However, I like to pretend there’s something more… I see this work as a grand exclamation point, a summing up of sorts, for the entire Cone Sister collection. Two Girls represents the sisters, sure. Yet, it also does exactly what art has the power of doing—of symbolizing the joy to be found outside the standard way of thinking.
Photo by J Caldwell