Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Cone Sisters of Baltimore

“People in Baltimore couldn’t help notice the sisters when they ventured out to the Lyric Theatre. Claribel would enter first, head held high, carrying her considerable girth forward at a regal pace. The light of the low-hanging chandeliers illuminated her colorful scarves and outsized silver hat pin. Etta followed a minute or so later, her eyes fixed on the floor several paces ahead of her sturdy flat shoes.”
(Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel)

May of 2011 will play host to two exhibition openings, both of which relate to Godine's new title Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel: Bringing Matisse to America. The book, written by Susan Fillion (who also provides vibrant original illustrations), is available starting today and tells the tale of the Cone sisters, two women from Baltimore who, with amazing foresight, amassed large quantities of the fresh, edgy artwork of their time. This artwork just so happened to come from then-budding experimental artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Gauguin, to name a few. Etta and Claribel’s nephew, Edward, described their apartment, saying, “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.”

Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel brings these two quirky characters to life. The beauty of the book, however, is in its paired visual and written story-telling techniques, which weave the fascinating history of the women into the pieces that they acquired. The words give a glimpse into the characters of the sisters, making them personal and accessible, and the illustrations bring whimsy and excitement to their tale, also serving as a means of threading together the master works included in the pages.

For those who wish to see more of the artwork that Etta and Claribel gathered during their travels, the Jewish Museum in New York is currently showing an exhibition about the sisters. This display shows 51 pieces of what was once “unconventional” artwork collected by the two unconventional sisters. Not only will the art be available for perusal, but a virtual tour of Etta and Claribel's apartments (in their native Baltimore) will also provide further insight into their lives.

Their complete collection was bequeathed to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where it has been on view as a permanent installation since 1957. This exhibition provides an even more comprehensive understanding of the work that the Cones did, and is certainly worth a visit as well. Additionally, beginning May 21st the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is featuring artwork gathered by the Steins, long-time friends of the Cones, who helped fuel Etta and Claribel’s appreciation for art.

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