DURHAM Etta Cone wasnt in charge of her familys business, but household matters generally fell to her. So when her fathers death in 1898 left the family home in Baltimore in need of a makeover, she was given $300 to do it.
The expectation was that she would buy furniture or wallpaper. Instead, Etta spent that money (equivalent to more than $8,000 today) on something nobody expected: five paintings by the late impressionist painter Theodore Robinson, which she bought at an estate sale in New York.
It was an unusual choice, especially for someone with no background or training in art. And that was the beginning of one of the most unusual art collections ever assembled, the subject of Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore. The exhibit is on display at Duke Universitys Nasher Museum of Art through Feb. 10. A satellite exhibit, The Cone Sisters Collect, is running concurrently at the Weatherspoon Art Museum at UNC-Greensboro.
Over a half-century, Etta and her older sister Claribel Cone would amass more than 3,000 works of art, including future classics by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and other cutting-edge modern-art masters. Neither sister ever married, and their brothers textile magnates with a string of factories in North Carolina bankrolled them with enough money to live and pay for trips to Europe. It was on those trips that they started buying art.
It was very unusual for two unmarried ladies from Baltimore to travel independently and collect modern art, said Karen Levitov, who curated the exhibit. There were pockets of modern-art collectors back then, but they were almost exclusively men in New York. Modern art wasnt even accepted by critics at the time, let alone the public, and people thought they were crazy for buying such radical art. By the late 1920s, when modern art started becoming more accepted, they started consciously setting out to make their collection more complete.
Levitov is an associate curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, and she drew items from the collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Nasher is the third and final stop for Collecting Matisse, after shows at the Jewish Museum and the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia, Canada.
In the early years of the 20th century, Matisse was a leading figure in the modern-art wave of Fauvists, so-called because critics said they painted like wild beasts (fauves). The first Matisse that Etta bought was 1905s Yellow Pottery From Provence, a bold choice because of its seemingly crude brushstrokes and sense of incompletion.
Matisse said that it took a lot of nerve to paint Fauvist, but even more to buy one, Schroth said. He left that one unfinished so you could see his process, the drawing beneath the paint. Thats something Etta was always interested in, the artistic process and how things were made.