Tidewater Review - January 2011


The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone
Anne Stinson


The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone, by Mary Gabriel. Bancroft Press, Baltimore, MD.
Etta and Claribel who? Not aspiring starlets from Hollywood, certainly. Who would name an actress Claribel or Etta? Romance novelists? Not even close. Focus on the last name, Cone. Surely you’ve heard it associated with the Baltimore Museum of Art. Aha! Aren’t they the two sisters who donated their collection of modern art to their hometown, a place they considered backward, dull and provincial?
Yep, that’s the pair of wealthy Jewish spinsters who spent much of their lives abroad, spending most of their inherited income to encourage starving artists by buying their work. Never mind that every major art critic, museum and collector dismissed their chosen artists as savages who distorted, offended and made obscene canvases and drawings.
This fascinating book was published in 2002, but only came to my attention recently. Anyone interested in art, history and/or biography will love the human story that traces the lives of the two Cone sisters and their passion for modern art. Ms. Gabriel, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art (formerly called the Maryland Institute) has ferreted out the lives and times of these American women in Paris as they befriended and encouraged the artists whose names are now household words; Picasso, Matisse, et. al.
Born in Baltimore in the late 19th century, the Cone women were self-taught, finding beauty in what seemed outrageous to the public and the aesthetes alike. Their contribution to art history is all the more remarkable in view of their background.
Claribel, the older of the two girls, shocked her Victorian family by insisting that she attend medical school in 1886, a decision unheard of in the strict Victorian household of eight children. Characteristic of her stern view of life (some of her contemporary friends called it “bossiness”), Claribel would not be deterred. She graduated in 1890 from the Women’s Medical College of Baltimore and henceforth always signed her name as Dr. Claribel Cone, just as male doctors did, not the modest M.D after her name that women physicians used.
Meanwhile, homebody Etta’s role was caretaker for her ailing parents and managing the family household.
All was not quiet in the elegant houses on Eutaw Place in the 1890s. Gertrude and Leo Stein arrived from California to live with an aunt in the neighborhood. It would be impossible to separate the Cones’ story from their new friends, close in age but totally lacking in the Cones’ quiet formality The young people moved freely from one gas-lit house to the other the first year, with Leo flirting and talking about art, music and travel. Gertrude’s laughter was loud and unbridled in contrast to conversations limited to business and commerce at the Cones’ house.
Claribel Cone was soon to leave for her hospital internship out of town. Leo Stein, then 20 years old, enrolled at Harvard, so Etta and Gertrude became close friends. A year later Gertrude joined Leo at Harvard, to earn her degree at Harvard’s annex for women, later to be called Radcliffe College.
Nearly inseparable, the Stein siblings spent summers in Paris and Rome, returning in time to visit the Cone sisters before returning to college. . Gertrude preached to Etta that life could be exciting if one didn’t stay in a rut. She regaled the shy homebody with scandalous tales of drinking, smoking and mingling with artists among their French friends. Etta was still running the household and nursing her ailing mother, but promised herself she’d sometime escape for a trip abroad.
Gertrude, having earned her degree at Harvard, may have been encouraged by the new Dr. Claribel Cone to enter medical school. Gertrude was admitted to Johns Hopkins Medical School, now accepting women students. Claribel was also at Hopkins for postgraduate work in the laboratory. Leo was back in town and enrolled at Hopkins University to study botany. Gertrude was then, as always, a free spirit. She left medical school two weeks before her graduation. It turned out that she had failed four of her senior class courses. Leo got tired of classrooms and took off for Italy to learn by looking at the great masters’ works in museums.
The new century rolled over to 1901. Etta broke loose from the family nest and used her inheritance for her first trip abroad with a friend and a cousin as companions. Leo met them at the dock when they disembarked. Italy was their destination. Etta lingered in Florence for a month, spending nearly every day at the Uffizi Museum. On to Venice and then to Germany to join up with her relatives (whom she had never met) for a tiresome shuttling from place to place. By August her party turned south to Paris for a reunion with Leo and Gertrude, who had arrived from Italy an hour before them.
Leo and Gertrude were currently interested in Japanese art. They took Etta to galleries and she bought 41 francs’ worth of Japanese prints, the first pieces in what would eventually fill the Eutaw Place home with wall-to-wall modern art.
Back home in October, Baltimore seemed even more dull after the excitement and grandeur of Europe. Etta was determined to make the trip an annual event. Her mother died the following year, so Etta’s next excursion was postponed to 1903. This time Claribel, by now on the faculty at Women’s Medical College, went along to check out a school in Germany where she was considering studying. Never a medical practitioner, she was following a career in research. The position in Frankfurt pleased her, and she decided to stay.
With the arrival of spring in 1904, Etta set out for Paris with Gertrude, who had decided to move there and live with Leo. (Gertrude remained in Paris for the next 34 years.) Etta didn’t make such a clean break with the past. She stayed three years. During that time, Gabriel writes, “In her pursuit of art, she {Etta} left behind the safety of the museum to enter the sordid, subterranean world of the artist’s studio.”
From that point, Gabriel takes the reader into the bizarre, unconventional life of this Victorian woman, still clad in black floor-length dresses over multiple petticoats with pockets for money, gloves, keys, etc., and big black hats with veils. Her garb was as out of the ordinary as the paint-stained, worn clothes of her pecunious artist friends. Leo had discovered a host of new talents producing the new art form. He took Etta to the obscure, down-at-the-heels galleries in alleys where few collectors visited, let alone purchased art. Etta adored the work of Matisse. Leo preferred Picasso.
Leo had found his calling. Tutored by the great art critic Bernard Berenson, he would be a collector. Gertrude was now engrossed in writing, her technique as shattered as the new art she admired.
From diaries and documents of the period, Gabriel has recreated the penniless circumstances under which the artists lived. Hovels in cellars, rooms without water or plumbing. Prostitutes and thieves as neighbors. Impressionistic canvases exploding into Cubism. The ferment is palpable on the pages. Etta came into her own as a collector and benefactor.
Etta and Gertrude roamed the galleries and shrewdly chose art they loved, no matter that their favorites were still reviled by the public and the critics. Gertrude had a new lover, the strange little mustachioed Alice Toklas, who took care of running the house when Gertrude spent time in Leo’s separate studio, writing her books that nobody would read, let alone buy.
The summer of 1909 took the Cone sisters and their brother Moses on a grand tour of Europe, North Africa and Asia. Claribel drove Moses to distraction by being late for everything. He drove his sisters crazy by his sole interest in business issues of Europe and the wealth accumulated by potentates. Claribel was most interested in sanitation conditions in foreign hospitals, and Etta kept them all from incessant quibbles. On a trip down the Nile, a sultan was intrigued by Claribel and asked Moses if he could buy her. No sale, said Moses. Meanwhile, the two sisters shopped until they dropped, collecting textiles, Turkish linens, ivory and lacquer ware in Japan, imperial robes in China, Hindu jewelry in India and took time out to ride an elephant. The trip was cut short when Moses became ill.
Etta wrote to Gertrude describing her disappointment at having to cancel her stopover in Paris. For her, family came first. She was needed at home.
Rather than return the next year, Etta languished in Baltimore in a slough of grief. Her beloved brother Moses had died, and she fell into a deep depression. Claribel was back in Germany with her own sorrows. She had fallen in love with the director of the research lab, and her letters sounded as if it might be reciprocated. A few months later he was dead of tuberculosis. She lost her position at the lab because she had not published enough papers on her work. A letter from the Women’s Medical College of Baltimore informed her that the school had closed and her connection to it severed.
Her career was over. She decided that she would spend the rest of her life indulging in travel, music and art. She moved to Munich, a city she loved, and settled in. It was 1913 and Germany was restless. Despite pleas from her Baltimore family, Claribel took rooms in the finest hotel in the heart of Munich and attended the opera, ate richly and played the role of a grande dame. By 1917 she became realistic about her situation. No mail entered or left Munich. The undersea cable from Europe to America was cut and the Baltimore relatives were frightened for her safety. Food became scarce. Claribel was unable to collect her income and had to borrow from her relatives.
In November, 1918, Germany surrendered and immediately fell into chaos. Anti-Semitism flourished. Claribel began to pack her trunks, a job that took her two years. Finally, she returned home to Baltimore in 1921.
By 1922 the Cone sisters were back in Paris, but it wasn’t the Paris they remembered. Instead of artists, there were writers, many of them attending Gertrude Stein’s salon. Wartime profits from the family business had made the Cone sisters very wealthy, and they bought art to make up for their missing years. Picasso did a portrait of Claribel, making her look, Gabriel writes, “a little like an older, female version of Oscar Wilde.” Etta focused on catching up and filling in the thin parts of her collection. They shipped seven crates filled with 57 works of art ahead of their fall return to Baltimore. In their annual treks abroad, by 1929 they had bought 90 more paintings.
Gabriel brings the remarkable women to vivid life with the depth of her research and the grace of her prose. The reader can visualize Claribel in Paris trying to get her 270 pounds into a taxi, the cabbie behind her pushing her derriere with the carved hand on a handle that she carried for the purpose.
Claribel died in 1929 and Etta kept on buying, this time alone. She made her collection more comprehensive with the addition of Degas, Cezanne, Manet, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Braque, Renoir, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, and Rouault. At her death in 1949, the combined collection of Claribel and Etta was appraised at $3 million.
The most recent appraisal in 2002 placed its value at nearly $1 billion.
Mary Gabriel is herself an amazing woman. The author has additional academic achievements - a Diplome from the University of Paris at the Sorbonne and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from American University.