Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein and Etta Cone sitting at a table in Settignano, Italy. June 26, 1903. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collection, CG.12.
You don’t need vast wealth to become an art collector. Etta Cone bought a Picasso etching for 120 francs in 1905 (about $550 in today’s dollars). World-renowned collector Jason Rubell, whose exhibition Time Capsule is also currently on view at the Nasher Museum, started his collection as a teen-ager with money he earned stringing tennis racquets.
The Cone collection began in 1898, when Etta Cone received $300 from her brother, Moses, to redecorate the family home after their father’s death. Rather than buy new curtains or wallpaper, Etta purchased five paintings by the American Impressionist Theodore Robinson at the artist’s estate sale in New York.
Claribel and Etta Cone went on to build an extraordinary modern art collection because of a special set of circumstances: independent income, love for art and confidence.
Over the course of 50 years, the sisters amassed some of the most important paintings and drawings by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, long before either artist was famous. They bought work they loved—and filled every possible inch of wall in their home.
At the turn of the last century, the sisters were friends with Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo, in Baltimore. The Cones and Steins traveled to Europe together to visit museums, galleries and artist studios. They attended the Salon d’Automne in 1905, where they first encountered Matisse’s bold paintings.The sisters met artists, writers and other art world luminaries at the Steins’ apartment. Years later, the sisters bought paintings from the Steins, including Picasso’s Woman with Bangs.
Over the next few years, Etta learned all she could about art; and Claribel found herself more interested in art than medicine. Together, they worked on growing their collection with few outside influences.
Etta’s grief over the death of her brother, Moses, in 1908, and then the outbreak of World War I interrupted the sisters’ travel and collecting. In the early 1920s the sisters lived in adjoining apartments in Baltimore. Each summer, they traveled to Europe to buy more art.
When Claribel died in 1929, Etta continued to acquire major works of art and fill out the Cone collection. Her ongoing visits and correspondence with Matisse may have influenced her to collect work by artists who inspired him: Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin. Etta died in 1949 and gave the entire collection to The Baltimore Museum of Art along with funds to build the new Cone Wing. After The Baltimore Museum of Art made its selections, the rest of the collection went to the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, now the Weatherspoon Art Museum.
Sources: Ellen B. Hirschland and Nancy Hirschland Ramage, The Cone Sisters of Baltimore: Collecting at Full Tilt (2008, Northwestern University Press, $34.95) and Karen Levitov, Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore (2011, Yale University Press).