The conservative Cone sisters knew how to discover progressive, undervalued art in Paris that would eventually fetch millions, but they did not look the part. Most people did not know these proper Victorian ladies kept wild nude paintings in their Baltimore apartments. Etta and Claribel wore long-sleeved, high-necked white blouses and floor-length black skirts until long after that costume went out of style. The sisters designed their own oddly formal clothes, hiring a seamstress in Paris named Madame George.

Etta and Claribel, sisters and best friends, led independent lives because of their family’s financial support. Real freedom, however, did not come until both of their parents died. Etta was 30 when she took her first tour of Europe in 1901 with two women—a cousin and a friend. She arrived in Paris at the end of that year and spent nearly every day with Gertrude Stein—shopping, visiting galleries, museums and the opera, seeing friends. The following year, Etta and Claribel began to travel to Europe together each year, like many well-to-do Victorians.

By 1905, Etta had rented a small Paris apartment. She and her sister attended weekly salons at Gertrude and Leo’s apartment with artists, writers and other luminaries. That year was significant because both sisters saw their first Matisse paintings at Salon d’Automne, an exposition of avant-garde art that was decried by critics. The Steins bought a painting there, and the Cones soon visited Matisse at his studio and bought a Fauve still life, Yellow Pottery from Provence. Etta began a lifelong friendship with Henri Matisse in 1906; she visited his studio and residence many times over the decades.

Etta, with Gertrude Stein, visited the studio of the young, unknown Pablo Picasso that previous year. Etta picked out drawings at Picasso’s studio and bought them for a few francs. She would make trips to Paris for the rest of her life, rounding out the collection with a major purchase each year.

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).