Cone sisters

Cone sisters

Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, Etta Cone
Born Claribel 1864, Etta 1870
Jonesboro, Tennessee
Died Claribel 1929, Etta 1949
Baltimore, Maryland

Western Female High School

Women's Medical College (Claribel)
Occupation socialites
Spouse neither married
Children none
Parents Herman (Kahn) Cone
Helen (Guggenheimer) Cone

The Cone sisters were Claribel Cone (1864–1929) and Etta Cone (1870–1949) of Baltimore, Maryland.[1] Together they gathered one of the finest collections of modern French art in the United States.[2][3] They were wealthy socialites during the Gilded Age.[1]


Early life

Their parents were Herman (Kahn) Cone and Helen (Guggenheimer) Cone, who were German-Jewish immigrants. Herman, who had immigrated from Altenstadt in Bavaria (South of Ulm) changed the spelling of his last name from Kahn to "Cone" almost immediately upon arrival in the United States in 1845, perhaps to become more American. Until 1871 the family lived in Jonesboro, Tennessee, where they had a successful grocery business. This is where the first five of twelve children were born, including Claribel and Etta. They then moved to Baltimore, Maryland.[4]

The eldest Cone brothers, Moses and Ceasar [the non-classical spelling is correct], later relocated to Greensboro, North Carolina. They established a textile business they named Proximity Manufacturing Company (long known as Cone Mills Corporation, now a unit of International Textile Group). During World War I the textile mills that "Brother Moses"[4] started would again increase their fortunes.

The two sisters, one with a grander personage and independent, the other garrulous and sociable, lived in adjoining apartments on Eutaw Street in Baltimore for fifty years.[1] They both graduated from Western Female High School. Claribel attended Women's Medical College of Baltimore and graduated in 1890, to become a physician and pathologist. She then worked in the pathology laboratory of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. Claribel became a pathologist but never practiced medicine. However, she did teach pathology and continued to study with other European researchers over the next twenty years. Etta was a pianist and managed the family household as more an implementer of Dr. Claribel's ideas.[5] They traveled extensively to Europe together almost yearly on long trips starting in 1901.[4]

Career of the sisters

The Cone sisters were friends of literary illuminati like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Their social circle included Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

It was Etta who began purchasing art in 1898, when she was given $300 to decorate the family home by an older brother.[5] Her start with five paintings by Theodore Robinson became a lifetime of collecting. Her tastes at first tended toward the conservative,[1] but one day in 1905, while the Cone sisters were on a European holiday, they visited the Steins in Paris. Etta was introduced to Picasso and then to Matisse the next year, marking her lifelong love of his art.[1][3] Etta made small acquisitions to help up-and-coming artists like Matisse, Picasso, and at home, students of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She also bought at very low prices from the Steins, who were perpetually in need of money and were known to get discarded drawings in Picasso's studio for $2 or $3 apiece.[1]

Claribel, by contrast, purchased much more avant-garde works. She purchased Matisse's Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra) (120,760 francs) and Paul Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen From the Bibemus Quarry (410,000 francs) for their collection. Etta was much more conservative and commonly spent an average of 10,000 francs for a painting or a group of drawings.[6] The Cone sisters had a special interest in Matisse's Nice period.[7] However, after Claribel's death, Etta became more adventurous in her purchases, for instance, purchasing Matisse's "Large Reclining Nude" ("The Pink Nude") in 1935.[8]

The Cones and the Steins

Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo Stein were orphaned and moved to Baltimore to live with an aunt. They soon became part of the Cone sister's social crowd. During Claribel's time at the Women's Medical College of Johns Hopkins University, Gertrude was also studying there. There was a big age gap between Claribel and Gertrude. These unconventional women were drawn to each other, however, by their common interest in music, fine arts, and sociable conversations. Etta credited Leo for helping her develop an eye for modern art.[1] Etta was reserved and conservative. She was awe struck by Gertrude's Bohemian lifestyle, and there are even hints that they were very likely lovers at some point.[9] That relationship cooled, however, after Toklas came on the scene.[4]

Stein wrote about Etta and Claribel 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.[10]

Social status

Their particular social contacts produced an advantage from which they could compile a world renowned art collection.[7] The Cone sisters compiled a large collection of paintings and sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne.[1] The Cone sisters never married; this was the case for about ten percent of women during this time period. Customary to their rank in society, they traveled extensively in the company of other women. Claribel's pursuit of a medical degree was considered unlady-like in her social sphere.[5] The Cone sisters' use of the family’s prosperity to collect fine artwork was unparalleled among other women. They were known as eccentrics and had a comical presence clad in their long Victorian dresses. When they went to the opera in Paris, they would buy an extra seat to hold their day's purchases.[4]

Although Gertrude Stein tried to belittle the Cone sisters as mere "shoppers" guided by her taste, in fact the sisters had strong tastes guided by the enormous collection of books on art which they purchased and studied.[11] Their purchases were displayed on the walls of their Marlborough apartments in Baltimore. The sisters' nephew once commented on this display, The pictures covered every available inch of wall space, even in the bathrooms.[1] While the collection remained private until Etta's death, Etta occasionally lent pieces to museums to exhibit. Claribel had willed her paintings to Etta, stipulating that these pieces should eventually be given to the Baltimore Museum of Art if the spirit of appreciation of modern art in Baltimore should improve.[9] To that museum the bulk of the collection eventually went.

Cone Collection

The Cone Collection includes pieces from world famous artists: Matisse's Blue Nude (1907) and Large Reclining Nude (1935), Paul Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry (c. 1897), Paul Gauguin's Vahine no te vi (Woman of the Mango) (1892), and Pablo Picasso's Mother and Child (1922).[9] The Cone sisters collected throughout Matisse's career, accumulating 42 of his oil paintings, 18 sculptures, 36 drawings, 155 prints, and seven illustrated books, as well as 250 drawings, prints, and copper plates from Matisse's first illustrated book, Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé. Other Matisse works they acquired were the 1917 Woman in a Turban (Lorette), Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent, Ornamental Background and Checkerboard (1928), and Interior, Flowers and Parakeets (1924).[9] The 500 works by Matisse in the Cone Collection form the largest and most representative group of his works of art in the world.[12]

The Cone sisters also purchased and acquired many of Picasso's works. Among these were 114 of his prints and drawings from his early years in Barcelona and from his Rose period (1905 — 1906) in Paris. The Cone sisters also purchased fine arts by American artists, more than 1,000 prints, illustrated books, and drawings. Among these were also a large group of textiles; jewelry, furniture, and other decorative arts. They not only purchased the finest European and Asian artwork, but also Egyptian sculpture, Middle Eastern textiles, Indian metalwork, 18th-century French jewelry, Japanese prints, and African sculpture.[9] Upon Etta's death in 1949, the Cone Collection was donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Wing contains over 3000 works.[1] The estimated value today of the Cone Collection is $1 billion.[4][6][13][14]

Other collections

A portion of the Cone art collection, including many Matisse lithographs and bronzes, resides at the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where the Cone Mills were located. These mills play a large part in the local history and in the Cone sisters' wealth. Moses H. Cone started these mills and had his vacation home Flat Top Manor in nearby Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The Cone sisters often visited their famous brother there.

Other visitors were Julius Cone and his wife Laura Weil, Etta's sister-in-law. Laura Cone was a loyal alumna of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Etta knew that the Weatherspoon Art Gallery had been established on campus in 1942 and that the organization was struggling to get established. Laura Cone asked her sister-in-law, Etta, if she would consider making a donation of art. In her will dated May 18, 1949, Etta left an astonishing collection to the Weatherspoon Art Gallery of sixty-seven Matisse prints and six Matisse bronzes as well as a large number of modern prints and drawings, including works by Pablo Picasso, Félix Vallotton, Raoul Dufy, and John D. Graham.[5]


The Cone sisters are buried at Baltimore's Druid Ridge Cemetery in an area called Hickory Knoll. The only word on their ten by ten family mausoleum is "Cone." Architect James O. Olney designed the Tennessee marble mausoleum flanked by two Roman style columns of Vermont granite that has two age-darkened bronze doors in front. On each vault is their name with their birth and death dates.[15]

Primary sources

  • Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art.
  • The Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, published in 2001, Cone Archives, Baltimore Museum of Art.
  • Kirwin, Liza, Correspondence of Claribel and Etta Cone. , 1987, Archives of American Art Journal. V. 27 No. 2(1987) p. 34.
  • Probate inventory of Etta Cone, Maryland State Archives, Baltimore City, Register of Wills - serial #52036, folio #14, Book #308.
  • Probate inventory Claribel Cone, Maryland State Archives, Baltimore City, Register of Wills - serial #10225, folio #315, Book #257.
  • Will of Etta Cone, May 18, 1949, Maryland State Archives, Baltimore City, Register of Wills - serial #52036, folio #35, Book #233, CR 232, case #690, p. 35
  • Will of Dr. Claribel Cone, April 25, 1929, Maryland State Archives, Baltimore City, Register of Wills - serial #10225, folio #531, Book #165, Case #447, p. 61.
  • Dr. Claribel Cone, A Remarkable Woman, April 8, 1911, The Baltimore Evening Sun, interview available on microfilm at the library at Morgan State University, and University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and University of Maryland, College Park.

Secondary sources

  • Pollack, Barbara. The Collectors: Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962., OCLC 340022 
  • Gabriel, Mary. The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta & Claribel Cone. Baltimore: Bancroft Press, 2002. (1998), The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta & Claribel Cone, Baltimore, MD: Bancroft Press, ISBN 1890862061 
  • Cordell, Eugene F. Medical Annals of Maryland. Baltimore: Medical and Chirurgical Society of Maryland, 1903., OCLC 79944057 
  • Abrahams, Harold J. Extinct Medical Schools of Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1969., OCLC 22014 
  • Richardson, Brenda and William C. Ameringer. Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta. Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1985. (1985), Dr Claribel & Miss Etta : the Cone collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Md.: Baltimore Museum of Art, ISBN 0912298588 
  • Hirschland, Ellen B. The Cone Sisters of Baltimore: Collecting at Full Tilt. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008. (2008), The Cone sisters of Baltimore : collecting at full tilt, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, ISBN 0810124815 
  • Noblitt, Philip T., A Mansion in the Mountains: The Story of Moses and Bertha Cone and their Blowing Rock Manor, Parkway Publishers 1996. (1996), A mansion in the mountains : the story of Moses and Bertha Cone and their Blowing Rock manor, Boone, N.C.: Parkway Publishers, ISBN 1887905022 
  • Cone, Edward T. The Miss Etta Cones, The Steins, and M’sieu Matisse: A Memoir. The American Scholar. Summer 1973 (vol. 42, no. 3) pp.441–460., OCLC 54450754 
  • Hirschland, Ellen B. The Cone Sisters and the Stein Family. Four Americans in Paris: The Collections of Gertrude Stein and her Family. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1970., OCLC 125240 

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