Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What They Loved and What They Bought

Karen Rosenberg at the New York Times reviews the current “Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore” exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City (1109 Fifth Ave at 92nd Street):

“Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore,” at the Jewish Museum, samples the extraordinary trove of European art amassed by two American spinsters in the first half of the 20th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art owns their collection — all 3,000 pieces, including some 500 Matisses — but others are free to tell the Cones’ story.

Gertrude Stein, who knew them well, fashioned a pithy literary portrait of them in “Two Women”: “There were two of them, they were sisters, they were large women, they were rich, they were very different one from the other one.” The Jewish Museum’s version offers a more traditional biography, though it too is incomplete.

Claribel Cone (1864-1929), the 5th of 13 children, and Etta Cone (1870-1949), the 9th, came from a family of successful German-Jewish immigrants. Their father ran a cigar and grocery business, but it was their brothers’ flourishing textile company that financed most of their art collecting. (It supplied denim to Levi Strauss, among others.)

The sisters were well educated (Claribel, who attended Johns Hopkins medical school, was a pathologist) and well traveled. On frequent trips to Europe, often in the company of Stein and her brother Leo, they attended salons and visited the studios of Picasso and Matisse. They bought feverishly, not only art but also decorative objects and exotica. At one point Claribel had to take a second apartment because the first was piled so high with acquisitions, there was nowhere to sleep.

The show takes to heart an observation by the Cones’ nephew, who described the sisters’ adjoining apartments in Baltimore as “a collection of collections.” Karen Levitov, the Jewish Museum’s associate curator, has chosen to present the works in order of acquisition. This leads to some curious pairings: Fauvist Matisses pop up alongside his later odalisques, and a Gauguin faces off with a Delacroix.

The idea is to generate a portrait of the Cones as collectors. This point may seem obvious, but the sisters have often been dismissed as mere shoppers — two rich ladies on a European spree, snapping up Matisses alongside rare textiles, jewelry and other luxury objects. (For some reason this label has rarely been applied to men who buy art in addition to boats, wine, real estate and other trophies.)

To read the rest of the piece click here.

Godine's new title Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel: Bringing Matisse to America was just released this week and features vibrant original illustrations by author Susan Fillion.

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