For four and a half decades, Etta and Claribel Cone roamed artists’ studios and art galleries in Europe, building one of the largest and most important collections in the world. At one time, these two independently wealthy Jewish women from Baltimore received offers from virtually every prominent art museum in the world, all anxious to house their private assemblage of modern art. In 1949, they awarded it to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Just up the road from the warren of apartments where they had housed their Matisses, Picassos, Reniors, Cezannes, and Gauguins, the Cone Collection therefore remained private, even as it moved to a public space.
For many reasons the Cone sisters’ story has been largely lost even to the history of modern art. Gertrude Stein, in her recollection of the era in Paris when Picasso and Matisse were unknown except to a very select bohemian few, neglected to give an accurate or full account of the Cones’ role in helping these modern masters survive. That omission was due in part to the fact that Gertrude did not want to annoy her lover Alice B. Toklas in writing about a former fling, Etta Cone. The real Cone story is rich personally and historically.
These two unmarried, seemingly upright Victorian sisters, born around the time of the U.S. Civil War, surrounded themselves with avant-garde and erotic art. Increasingly they seemed to let the art they bought live the lives they dared not. Bound by societal constraints, they expressed themselves in collecting much the same way the artists expressed themselves on canvas or clay.