19th Century, Museums/Exhibits, Painting

Women with Good Taste: The Cone Sisters and Matisse

When modern artists like Picasso and Matisse first started trying to sell the public on their work, the experience was extremely difficult—everyone knows just how successful Van Gogh was, after all. Sometimes it took a little extra marketing on the painter’s part in order to close a sale. In Karen Levitov’s Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, accompanying an exhibition at The Jewish Museum, New York, Claude Duthuit, the grandson of Henri Matisse, remembers a white lie his grandfather had to tell to persuade Claribel and Etta Cone to buy his seascape, Large Cliff with a Fish. The painting’s focus is a large bed of sea or dune grass upon which are arranged colorful, freshly-caught fish. The Cone ladies hesitated to buy a painting which depicted the extended suffering of animals, so Matisse told them, “No no, I had my daughter…throw buckets of water on them during the painting, and then we threw them back.” Well, we suppose it could have been true.

Usually, Matisse, as well as other emerging modern artists in the early twentieth century, did not need to try too hard to convince the Cone sisters to collect their work. At a time when most art collectors disparaged works by artists like Matisse and The Metropolitan Museum of Art believed that nothing of merit had been created since 1900, Claribel and Etta bought over 3,000 modernist paintings, sculptures, and other objects including textiles. The avant-garde and the Oriental fascinated them. They had more objets d’art than Scheherazade had stories; their apartments crowded with beautiful textiles and prints were closer to Aladdin’s cave of wonders. And while the sisters worried about potential animal cruelty in the creation of Large Cliff with a Fish, social mores did not stop them from constructing one of the most progressive-bordering-on-scandalous collections of their time.

One of the most controversial paintings that they acquired was Matisse’s Blue Nude, in which a woman reclines on the ground outdoors. The contortion of her body and her confrontational gaze were erotic and “indecent” enough, but the unnatural coloring, the blocky forms, and the angular planes completely rejected any semblance of traditional styles. Claribel bought it twenty years after it was first shown, and the uproar had not entirely dulled by then. She and Etta, both outwardly proper Victorian women who acquired their money through their family’s business, continued to collect females nudes in painting and sculpture. Even the sheer amount of money that they spent on art was, when they began their collection, considered radical. The sisters’ audacity served them well: by the time of their deaths, they were in possession of the most comprehensive Matisse collection in the world.

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