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.
The Cone sisters looked 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.
Claribel and Etta Cone were dignified and stately Victorian ladies from a prosperous family in Baltimore. Their older brothers, Moses and Ceasar, made their fortune in North Carolina, building a textile empire. The brothers sent Claribel and Etta 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, attended Women's Medical College of Baltimore and, while she never practiced medicine, she became one of the world’s first female pathologists in a laboratory at Johns Hopkins Medical School. She was bold and confident, while her sister Etta was more retiring, though Etta made most of the decisions when it came to buying art.
The sisters dressed in conservative floor-length black skirts 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 bold, innovative landscapes. They favored modern paintings by artists practically unknown to their peers: Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir. In the early 1900s, the Cone sisters were 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 continued to acquire art and fill 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 of Art made its selections, the rest of the collection went to the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina, the Weatherspoon Art Museum at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The Cone sisters had amassed one of the most important modern art collections of the 20th century.
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).