Claribel and Etta Cone

Jonesboro, Tenn., 1864–Lausanne, Switzerland, 1929, and Jonesboro, Tenn., 1870–Blowing Rock, N.C., 1949

Sisters Claribel and Etta Cone were two of the most prominent collectors of modern art in America during the first half of the twentieth century. Their interactions with many protagonists of French modernism, especially Henri Matisse, and firsthand knowledge of artists’ work allowed the Cone sisters to build an outstanding collection, which they bequeathed to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1949.

Two of eleven siblings, Claribel and Etta lived in Tennessee and then in Baltimore, where their father owned several grocery stores. After their eldest brothers took over the family business, it grew, allowing them to purchase a number of Southern cotton mills and establish a financial empire. The Cone sisters benefited from the prosperous family business in building the majority of their art collection after World War II.

Claribel studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University, becoming a respected professional in the field of pathology. She met Gertrude Stein, a fellow student there, and in the 1890s their friendship led the Cone and Stein families to become close. Around the same time, Etta assumed the role of caretaker for the family home and her aging parents. It was in this capacity that she made her first purchases of art in New York—five works by the American impressionist painter Theodore Robinson, from an estate sale at the American Art Galleries—to adorn the parlor of the family residence at Eutaw Place in Baltimore.

Beginning in 1901, Claribel and Etta travelled to Europe frequently. In 1905 Etta visited the Salon d’Automne, meeting Pablo Picasso through Stein in November and Matisse through Gertrude’s sister-in-law Sarah Stein in January 1906. This period proved formative for the Cone collection. After visiting the studios of Picasso and Matisse, the sisters began collecting works by both artists and, when they returned to Baltimore in 1906, brought with them a discrete cache of art, including Matisse’s 1905 watercolor The Harbor of Collioure, his Yellow Pottery from Provence, an unfinished oil painting from 1906, and three drawings.

Although they began acquiring art before World War I, the Cones only became serious about building their collection after the war as they drew on funds earned through the family business. Beginning in 1922, the Cones traveled to Europe more frequently, and started buying from art dealers as well as directly from artists. They purchased many of Matisse’s Odalisques and interiors from the 1920s and 1930s, such as The Music Lesson, Two Women Seated on a Divan (1921), bought from the dealer Paul Vallotton in 1926, and Standing Odalisque Reflected in a Mirror (1922), bought from Matisse the following year). In 1926 they secured the artist’s early masterpiece Blue Nude (1907) at the sale of John Quinn’s collection in Paris. The Cones also bought major works by earlier artists such as Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet, Francis Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Vincent van Gogh, as well as contemporary artists Marie Laurencin and Félix Vallotton. The works were subsequently installed in the sisters’ private apartments, where they were displayed together with their eclectic collection of furniture and objects.

In 1929, after Claribel’s death, Etta continued to build the collection. She visited Matisse annually to acquire key works that he reserved for her, and during his visit to the United States in 1930 she commissioned him to make a posthumous portrait of Claribel. In 1932, at Matisse’s suggestion, she bought all of the materials (original drawings, printed and refused copper plates, proof volumes, and the signed first copy) from the artist’s illustrated edition of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Poésies produced by Albert Skira. In 1934 Etta became a client of the Galerie Rosengart in Lucerne, Switzerland, adding canvases by such nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artists as Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Amedeo Modigliani, and van Gogh, bringing further historical depth to the collection. She also bought several works on paper and paintings by Matisse (e.g. The Dark Embroidered Blouse, 1936, and Purple Robe and Anemones, 1937) from the dealer Paul Rosenberg.

Etta last visited Europe in 1938. In the United States she continued buying Matisse’s works from the artist’s son, the New York–based dealer Pierre Matisse. Eventually her collection included 155 prints, forty-two paintings, eighteen bronzes, thirty-six drawings, and seven illustrated books by the French artist. In May 1949 Etta decided, following Claribel’s will, to bequeath the full collection of more than three thousand paintings, drawings, sculptures, textiles, and objets d’art to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Since 1957, the Cone Collection has been displayed in a specially built wing of the museum dedicated to Etta and Claribel.

For more information, see:

Boas, George. The Cone Collection of Baltimore, Maryland: Catalogue of Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Baltimore, 1934.

Cone, Claribel and Etta. Cone Collection: A Handbook with a Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. Baltimore, M.D.: The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1955.

Richardson, Brenda, and William C. Ameringer. Dr Claribel and Miss Etta: The Cone Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Baltimore, M.D.: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1985.

The Claribel Cone and Etta Cone Papers are partially digitized on the Baltimore Museum of Art Library and Archives Digital Collections website.

How to cite this entry:
Casini, Giovanni, "Claribel and Etta Cone", The Modern Art Index Project (December 2019), Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.