The Cone Sisters of Baltimore

When a painting hangs on a museum wall it represents a series of decisions involving taste and money. Many years often separate the purchase of a work of art based on personal whim and the artist's eventual acceptance as a major figure.

In the case of the paintings in the exhibit at the Jewish Museum, "Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters," most of what hangs on the wall was acquired when its painters were unknown or even reviled. We think of "fauve" as a historical term to denote turn-of-the century French artists whose work was considered wild. Its original use was not dispassionate -- it implied disgust and contempt.

There is something amusing about the fact that these "contemptible" canvases were originally acquired by two maiden ladies from Baltimore. One of them had gone against the grain by becoming a doctor but for the most part the two were conventionally Victorian -- one was born during the Civil War, the other five years later.

The women were the Cone Sisters, Claribel and Etta, daughters of a prosperous Jewish merchant who made a fortune selling denim to Levi Strauss. Nothing about their utterly respectable background would have suggested these women would collect painters considered wild and outré. It had to do in part with their friendship with a brother and sister from San Francisco, Leo and Gertrude Stein.

When the Cone sisters went to Paris at the turn of the century, the Steins were already part of the bohemian world of poets and painters that included Picasso, then quite unknown, and Matisse, known but disparaged. The Cones' decision to buy canvases by these men was entirely personal -- there was nothing fashionable about their choices. Decades would pass before they were acknowledged modern masters.

Nowadays one can buy art and immediately lend it to a museum, with tax benefits. The Cone girls made no such moves. They bought these works to hang on their walls because they loved looking at them in their separate Baltimore apartments. Only with the death of the younger, Etta, in 1949 did the invaluable collection go to the Baltimore Museum. (Her sister predeceased her by 20 years.)

What is remarkable about the works in "Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters" is how fully formed the artists already are. Nothing about the astonishing Picasso watercolor "Two Roosters" suggests the work of an experimental 25-year-old -- it is entirely masterful.

Similarly, the early pieces by Matisse the women collected are clearly the work of Matisse. The style would deepen and mature but it is already unmistakable, already irresistibly sensuous. There is also a gallery full of powerful Matisse sculpture.

Although many of the paintings are from the first few decades of the 20th century, many date from much later -- Etta bought a simple oil by Matisse in 1947, two years before she died. An unusually rich canvas -- "Striped Robe, Fruit and Anemones" -- dates from 1940.

The Cones collected work by other artists. The exhibit includes a striking drawing by Cezanne as well as paintings by Courbet, Delacroix, Gauguin and a rather harsh one by Van Gogh. In addition to traditional art the Cones collected rare fabrics and jewelry, which is also on display in the stunningly mounted exhibit..

In the catalogue Matisse's grandson acknowledges that his grandfather, in his early years, got enormous assistance from the Cones' purchases of his work. In that sense they might be considered his patrons -- though they exercised no direction, no directives. Their contributions were financial, though the amounts were probably, in retrospect, small.

Equally important was their enthusiasm -- when the artists' work had not yet been accepted by "the establishment" the enthusiasm of buyers of unquestioned intelligence and discernment may have been a contribution of inestimable value.