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Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore is about painting in the golden age of painting, and the creation of taste. It's also about women, and not just the women on the walls and pedestals.

The Cone sisters and the coming of modernism at the Nasher Museum 

"Money creates taste," according to artist and sloganeer Jenny Holzer. Those inclined to agree will find much to ponder on the Duke campus, where the Nasher Museum of Art is showing the modern art holdings of the Cone sisters of Baltimore.

When Holzer, who studied at Duke in the late 1960s, coined that line in her 1977 landmark public work, Truisms (which was displayed in a group show at the Nasher last year), she had turned away from painting. She was part of a generation of postmodernists who were, among other things, skeptical that the traditional tools of representation couldn't say anything that hadn't been said before. From Jackson Pollock to Gerhard Richter, in our times there's been anxiety about painting.

And today, the people with money are driving art prices to absurd heights; earlier this year, Pace Gallery sold a Richter work for $25 million. But today's rich collectors are unlikely to resemble the ones of yore, who had the leisure time to put in weeks and months of travel between New York, Paris, Rome, India, China and Japan on coaches, tramp steamers and trains. They seem more likely to be hedge fund managers and Middle Eastern oil barons who jet in to Miami and Basel for a dirty weekend and throw money at the latest hotshot out of art school. To such collectors, fine art is the apotheosis of the magical thinking that their livelihoods depend on: intrinsically worthless objects that appreciate in value simply because people think they are precious.

But the modernist period, from Manet to Miró, Monet to Matisse, was an age of heroic painting, of finding new expressive possibilities with light and pigment, shapes and strokes. This work was often difficult, baffling and scandalous, and required support from perceptive critics and open-minded collectors.

So Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore is about painting in the golden age of painting. It's about the creation of taste.

It's also about women. But not just the women on the walls, typically nude, painted and sculpted by Matisse, Picasso and Gauguin. In the Nasher galleries, we also see images of three Jewish women from Baltimore. They're seated together at a café table in 1903, in a photograph taken in Settignano, Italy. At the center is Gertrude Stein, not yet out of her 20s and not quite the celebrated experimental writer, salon hostess and tastemaker she was to become. On each side are the stiffly dressed sisters, covered from neck to wrist to ankle, but this E.M. Forster-like tableau is charmingly undermined by the very contemporary-looking straw hat on Stein's head.

If Stein was the brains and soul of a generation of Modernists, then the Cones were the rich American arrivistes out of a Henry James novel who are persuaded to buy the art. Money creates taste. The Cones had money; Stein had taste. What good was one without the other?

The Cone sisters were members of a single generation of a German-Jewish clan that left its influence across the South, including North Carolina. If you've spent time in Greensboro and Blowing Rock, you're familiar with brother Moses Cone, he of the hospital, the park and more. A 19th-century textile magnate with many mills in North Carolina and elsewhere, Moses and his brother earned enough money to support their two unwed sisters and their acquired taste for art collecting. Etta, six years Claribel's junior, was born in 1870 in Baltimore, where the family relocated after living in Tennessee during the Civil War. (Notoriously, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant tried to expel Jews from areas under his control in Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky.)

The Nasher exhibit includes a reproduction of a rather remarkable 1911 feature on Claribel that appeared on the society page of the Baltimore Evening Sun. The sub-headlines of the profile read "Her Work Is Chiefly In The Laboratory, But She Finds Time, Also, To Collect Book Covers And Old Boxes. She Unties A String With A Hairpin While She Discourses Interestingly Of The Habits Of The Wary Bacillus."

In the subsequent interview, Claribel discusses her struggle against institutional sexism to become a pathologist. She explains her preference for German educational philosophy and displays a few antiquities that she and her sister have acquired, before telling the reporters that she is expecting a visit from a student. But before the women leave, would they like to have a look through her microscope at a "nice tuberculosis germ"?

In this single article, one can sense the ongoing collisions of modernity: the stirrings of female emancipation, the battle against a disease that killed generations of artists and the urban poor, the increased curiosity about non-Western cultures, the coming three decades when the mighty fortress of German culture would implode.

Although Claribel was the older, bolder and more idiosyncratic of the two sisters, it was Etta who initiated the collecting, starting with an innocuous home redecorating project with $300 provided by Moses. Later, on a trip to Paris, Etta visited with Stein, who in turn introduced her to her upstart friends in Montparnasse, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

(Etta's relationship with Stein during this time may have been more than platonic, according to a 1985 biography of the sisters by Brenda Richardson, then a curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), which houses the Cone collection.)

Etta made a few exploratory purchases from these unknown artists before she left Paris in 1906—a year before Picasso and Matisse painted their youthful masterpieces "Les demoiselles d'Avignon" and "Souvenir de Biskra," respectively. The latter, better known as "Blue Nude," was acquired by Etta decades later and bequeathed to the BMA. In a significant omission, however, it is not being displayed at the Nasher.

Claribel, a Germanophile, spent the Great War in Munich, attending theaters, museums and lectures. Although the Cone family doubtlessly preferred to have her home, she was safely away from the front in Bavaria, where she remained from 1914 to 1921. (Incidentally, her time in postwar Munich overlapped with the years another expat living there, Adolf Hitler, decided to put aside his artistic ambitions in favor of political ones.)

That the politically neutral Claribel remained in Germany for nearly twice as long as the war lasted raises the question of whether she really was in a hurry to come back to sleepy old Baltimore and its twittering society ladies. She returned stateside in 1921, but she and Etta were back in Paris the following year, joining the massive migration to the Left Bank of American writers, artists and socialites. And that's when the Cones' collecting really began—with greatly improved buying power, thanks to the wartime boom that boosted the family business. (The war also weakened the currency in France and, disastrously, Germany.)

If the figures of Etta, Claribel and Gertrude loom over this show, curated by the BMA's Karen Levitov, it is the female form that dominates on the walls and pedestals of the Nasher galleries. Excluding indistinct figures in the relatively few landscapes, I counted seven male subjects among these works—and four of them are in a single Cézanne. (A fifth is a Picasso self-caricature in which, hat in hand, he not-so-subtly implores Etta to buy more of his pictures.) Although a handful of landscapes by the likes of Pissarro and Van Gogh are on display, as well as Japanese silks and Belgian lace and other decorative purchases, the sisters were clearly drawn to female nudes, both on canvas and cast in bronze, produced by Picasso and, especially, Matisse.

At this stage of art history, it's difficult to appreciate that there was once the shock of the new about Picasso and Matisse. But with the encouragement of Stein, and her brother, Leo, and their rapidly increasing confidence in their own taste, the Cones forged ahead, purchasing oils, sketches and castings of young women in various stages of repose and undress.

The Nasher walls contain many images that are now familiar and canonical, including one of Gauguin's Tahitian women, painted with richly saturated, eggplant- and mango-colored pigments, and one of Matisse's famous large reclining nudes. And then there are the odalisques, which seem to have preoccupied Matisse for decades. Odalisques, in their original context, were merely low-level housemaids who waited on higher-ranking women in the homes of Turkish sultans. But they took on an erotic fascination for Westerners starting around the 18th century, when their carnality was subsumed within traditional academic nude forms.

Nineteenth-century painters such as Ingres gave this female ideal a good workout, and by the 1920s, the odalisque was a thoroughly familiar subject to Western audiences. But in Matisse's hands, the odalisques become unabashedly sensual and fleshy. There's no modesty, no pretense to higher spiritual or intellectual interest in his paintings. But what's left is not pornography or prurience. Instead, we have the bare breasts and bellies of young women at ease, gazing directly at the viewer, seemingly uninhibited in harlequin pants, with Matisse's typical arrangements of their arms and legs.

What is unavoidable in the Nasher galleries is the contrast between the erotic, fleshy nudity of the odalisques and the numerous photos of the dowdy and starchily swaddled Cone sisters. We're told that even in the 1920s, they struck their contemporaries as old-fashioned, continuing to wear ankle-length Victorian dresses. The contrast between the sisters' personal style, and perhaps personal inhibitions, and the overwhelmingly sensual nature of their purchases couldn't be more striking.

The show includes a marvelous Matisse sculpture entitled "Two Negresses," which shows two sturdily built nude women in a half embrace, the right arm of each on the other's shoulder. The dominant one, signified by a bare head, has her right hand on her hip, while the other, with long hair, lets her left arm fall by her side. Only about 18 inches high, it's a remarkably evocative representation of a close female relationship. Take a couple of trips around it.

Another suggestive piece is a sketch called "Young Girl With Plumed Hat in Profile," which shows a teenaged girl wearing something on her head that looks like a headdress from The Lion King. (Matisse himself designed it.) The girl is slouched, and Matisse draws her pouting lips and nose with special care. It's amusing to learn that Etta liked this 1919 piece so much that she hung it in her bedroom. Such biographical details suggest that the "male gaze" that later feminist semioticians would explain may have also been a female gaze.

The show isn't all about Matisse, Picasso and their girls, however. There are some fine works by other painters that seem to have been acquired in later years to round out the Cone collection, including pre-Modern works by Eugéne Delacroix and Gustave Courbet. The former, an 1847 classical subject by one of France's greatest and most influential painters, will catch your attention with the fluttering, shackled hands of Andromeda. The latter, a landscape called "The Shaded Stream at Le Puits Noir," is a masterly exercise in lightness and shade to which no reproduction can do justice. Try standing about 3 feet away from it and rocking on your feet from side to side. You might expect a trout to jump out of the water.

Art historians seem to be divided on the question of whether the Cone sisters were true connoisseurs or merely shoppers, a walking checkbook for the Steins. In a way, it doesn't really matter—money may create taste, but part of possessing money is having the means to pursue aesthetic cultivation, whether by travel, study or having knowledgeable friends. The Cones lived in a time when people aspired—without embarrassment, shame or irony—to live without toil. Once free of the demands of daily labor, the thinking went, a person was free to improve the life of the mind, as well as the lives of others. Thus museums, parks, schools, libraries and hospitals were endowed by the one-percenters of the Gilded Age.

While not all people born into such circumstances did a single useful thing with their lives, it must be said that the Cones made the most of their good fortune by adopting the attitude of noblesse oblige espoused by Andrew Carnegie: When Claribel died unexpectedly and early in 1929, she bequeathed her personal holdings to Etta, telling her to someday leave it to the city of Baltimore, "in the event that the spirit of appreciation of modern art becomes improved."

That may have seemed a far-off goal in those days, but the presentation in Durham of the Cones' magnificent collection shows how well they succeeded in bringing modernism to America.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Modern women."

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