Cones, Steins and emerging modern art

Two American Jewish families with amazing modern art collections. Three strong-minded, independent women who were way ahead of their time.

And now… two simultaneous art exhibits on two coasts.

A Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso from the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, currently on display at the Jewish Museum

While visiting New York over the weekend for my dad’s 87th birthday, I stopped by an exhibit at the Jewish Museum on the Cone sisters of Baltimore — two unmarried women who were some of the earliest patrons of Picasso and Matisse, and who left a huge collection of works by those two artists as well as Gauguin, Cezanne, and Van Gogh to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Claribel and Etta Cone were raised in the Victorian era, and dressed in Victorian collars and skirts to the end of their lives. But under that conservative garb were souls who broke rules. Claribel became a doctor at a time when few women did so. Etta developed an intimate relationship for a while with Gertrude Stein that the exhibit suggests may have included sexual/romantic love.

Claribel Cone (left) , Gertrude Stein (center) and Etta Cone in 1903 / The Baltimore Museum of Art: Cone Archives

And as they shopped for shoes and clothes in Paris, the sisters collected works of avant-garde art that would have been seen by most Americans as garish, even scandalous. (One of their Matisses sparked a riot by art students when it went on tour.)

The Cones came from a German-Jewish family, with Cone the Anglicized version of Kahn (Cohen). Their art collecting was funded by family textile mills run by their brothers. And — here’s a piece of obscure Ilana-trivia that wasn’t in the exhibit — they were graduates of Baltimore’s Western High School, one of only two 19th century public girls’ schools in the U.S. that remains in operation as a single-sex school today.

It was a terrific exhibit. First of all, the paintings were great — colorful, bold, evocative. Those women had good  taste! But the staging was also great. The rooms were separated by transparent panels embossed with giant black-and-white photos of the Cones’ cluttered apartment so you had a feeling of being in their home.

Alongside their paintings were samples of the African and Middle Eastern textiles and jewelry that the women collected, as well as objects from their collecting life, such as a handwritten condolence note from Matisse to Etta upon Claribel’s death.

Front room of Etta Cone's apartment / The Baltimore Museum of Art, Cone Papers

As I meandered through the exhibit, I wondered about the working conditions in those textile factories that allowed the sisters the luxury of their European travel, shopping, and art patronage.

And what about the second exhibit I mentioned? I arrived home to  a Leah Garchik column in the Chronicle describing a new show at the S.F. Museum of Modern Art on Gertrude Stein, her brothers, and their art collection — The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde. It’s accompanied by a biographical exhibit at the nearby Contemporary Jewish Museum called Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, which runs until Sept. 6.

Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906 / Metropolitan Museum of Art

I haven’t seen the SFMOMA Stein exhibition yet: It opens on May 21 and runs until Sept. 6, after which it will travel to Paris and New York.

But I highly recommend the Cone show at the Jewish Museum, which also runs until September.

Gertrude Stein wrote a story, Two Sisters, about the Cones. Their lives intertwined both in Baltimore and Paris. Stein introduced the Cones to Picasso, Matisse and others, and the Cones helped support Stein through their purchases. Both the Steins and the Cones built impressive collections that today are worth millions but at the time were edgy and controversial.

I love that women from these two families — who shared a Jewish heritage, offbeat independence, and visionary love of modern art — are now the subject of major museum exhibits at the same time.

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4 Responses to “Cones, Steins and emerging modern art”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    Neat piece! I wish I could see either or both.

  2. Sam Schuchat Says:

    And don’t forget: Gertrude Stein was Oakland born and bred!

  3. Susan Says:

    Westward ho! (the name of the Western High School yearbook). My mother, my aunts, almost all of my female cousins who were raised in Baltimore, and I are all Western alumnae.

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