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Inside the Cone Collection: Baltimore Sisters Amassed A Treasure Trove Of Art

Over a period of 50 years, Claribel and Etta Cone, two sisters who lived in adjoining apartments on Eutaw Street in Baltimore, acquired one of the most important modern art collections in the world, highlights of which are on display in the exhibition Matisse, Picasso & Friends: Impressionism to Surrealism at the Naples Museum of Art, Naples, Florida, US, February 4 through May 1, 2005.

Their holdings included more than 500 works by Henri Matisse, along with paintings and sculpture by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne and other masters of late 19th-century and early 20th-century French art. They began collecting, and supporting, several of these artists-most notably Matisse-well before they were widely recognized as masters. In doing so, the sisters played a significant role in the evolution of modern art. The Cone Collection contains definitive examples of Matisse's art in various stages of his career and in a variety of media.

The Cones were born and raised in Baltimore, two daughters among 13 children of affluent Jewish parents who'd earned their wealth in the grocery and textile businesses. Claribel (1864-1929), the older sister, was a physician and pathologist, while Etta (1870-1949), an amateur musician, managed her family's household. In 1898, Etta was given $300 by an older brother to decorate the family home. She traveled to New York and bought five paintings by American impressionist Theodore Robinson. It was the beginning of the sisters' art collection.

The Cones became friends with writer Gertrude Stein and her family in the late 1890s, when Stein was in Baltimore attending Johns Hopkins University. Etta later credited Leo Stein, Gertrude's brother, with helping her develop an eye for modern art. In Paris, the Steins introduced the Cone sisters to Picasso in 1905 and to Matisse the following year. Etta's initial purchase of several Matisse drawings in 1906 marked the beginning of her life-long love of his art.

With a generous income from their family businesses, the sisters were financially secure, free to travel widely and collect art. Never married, they indulged their passion for modern art during frequent visits to Paris, where they would buy avant-garde paintings and sculpture, sometimes picking up discarded drawings in Picasso's studio for $2 or $3 apiece. The art was displayed back home in their Baltimore apartments; a bathtub served as a storage bin for what didn't fit on the walls. Edward Cone, the sisters' nephew, once commented, "The pictures covered every available inch of wall space, even in the bathrooms... They bought only what they really wanted, and they loved all that they owned."

The Cones' collection demonstrates a departure from tradition and a love of artists who were not widely appreciated-many of whom have come to be known as the most important artists of the time. Paintings the sisters purchased for several thousand dollars are today worth tens of millions.

After Claribel died in 1929, Etta continued to collect, often buying directly from Matisse. She also acquired work from the artist's predecessors to give a historical context to her Matisse collection. In 1936, she purchased The Pink Nude, after Matisse sent her a series of 22 photographs documenting the creative process behind the painting.

Etta Cone left most of the sisters' collection, along with $400,000 for a wing to exhibit it, to The Baltimore Museum of Art. In 1950, this treasure trove of great art-more than 3,000 works-left Eutaw Street for its permanent home.

Matisse, Picasso & Friends draws from the best of this rich collection, taking viewers back to a pivotal time in the history of modern art-from the late 19th century through the Second World War. This was a time when Paris was clearly the center of the art world and artists migrated there to live and work in the cultural havens of Montmartre and Montparnasse. It was a period of remarkable innovation in the visual arts, including the birth of such movements as impressionism, fauvism, post-impressionism, cubism and surrealism.

The dominant presence in the exhibition is Matisse, with eight paintings and four sculptures. These sculptures include one of his earliest, Madeleine I (1901), and one of his most important bronzes, Large Seated Nude (1922-1929).

Matisse's reputation as the preeminent colorist of the 20th century is supported by the selection of paintings in the exhibition, which also demonstrate his rigorous construction of pictorial space and his mastery of light and touch.

Picasso is represented by the haunting Blue Period painting Woman with Bangs, a bronze portrait of his companion Fernande Olivier, Woman Plaiting her Hair (Fernande) and the 1929 painting Head: Study for a Monument.

The exhibition includes three Degas bronzes of ballerinas, among them his most famous sculpture, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.

Impressionism in painting is represented by the beautiful View of St. Lazare Railway Station, Paris by Norbert Goeneutte.

Gauguin's Upaupa Schneklud (The Player Schneklud), a brightly colored portrait of the cellist, Van Gogh's Landscape with Figures and Cézanne's late Bathers are examples of post-impressionism, as is Paul Signac's Quay at Clichy, painted when he was working closely with Georges Seurat.

The transition from Matisse's fauvism to Picasso's cubism is seen in Raoul Dufy's angular Landscape at Chasseur and Andre Derain's Landscape with Two Nudes. Surrealism is represented in Chimeras in the Mountains by Max Ernst, Ophelia and In The Tower of Sleep by Andre Masson, Rocks by the Chilean-born Matta, Yves Tanguy's The Earth and the Air and Personages and Birds in the Night by Joan Miro.

The artistic journey taken by these artists and many others reflects one of the most vital periods in modern art. Matisse, Picasso & Friends: Impressionism to Surrealism provides viewers a rare opportunity to experience the journey themselves.

A special $20 admission ticket is required to view the exhibition. For more information, or to order tickets, contact Customer Service at (239) 597-1900 or toll-free at (800) 597-1900 or visit the museum online at

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