Matisse (and Picasso) in Manhattan

Amy Hughes

It’s your last chance to catch an amazing exhibit of 47 works which include some dazzling Matisse and Picasso works, among other biggies, and an even more beguiling story of the two sisters who collected them, at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan.

For anyone trying to avoid religious experiences, a trip to the Jewish Museum isn’t one.  In fact, an eye for good art has rubbed off on the museum, perhaps thanks to its neighbours on Museum Mile, of which there’s the Guggenheim, the Neue Galerie, the Met, and others.  Or maybe, they just have a terrific curator.

Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters is a show, not just about art, but about two pioneering sisters.  Claribel and Etta Cone were among the earliest collectors of European modern art in the United States, and amassed 3000 works, creating one of the world’s most important art collections. Items range from Impressionist avant-garde sculpture, to decorative arts and traditional and exotic textiles.

‘allo ‘allo … Picasso’s tribute to the Cone sisters

The sisters grew up in Baltimore, in the late 19thth century, daughters of German-Jewish immigrants who made their money with a wholesale grocery business.   But, it was their brothers who really earned the family’s riches, investing in a cotton mill that supplied uniforms to the military in World War I, and later, denim to Levi Strauss.   The brothers supported their sisters’ addiction to art, allowing them to conduct expeditions across Africa, Asian and Europe, with annual buying trips to France, where they kept an apartment in Paris.

Well-educated, and cultured, the sisters were ahead of their time in many respects.  Claribel was strong-willed and was one of the first female GP’s of the late 19th-century in America.  Meanwhile, Etta was content to manage the household and acquire the art.  The sisters began with trips to Paris, where they met Gertrude Stein.  Some speculate Etta and Gertrude were lovers.  Whatever the case, it was the Steins who introduced Etta and Claribel to Picasso and Matisse.  The sisters formed a close bond with Matisse; there are lovely letters and small drawings from both Picasso and Matisse, to Etta and Claribel.  The sisters discovered the now iconic artists when they were essentially no-names.  Matisse had been criticised for his brashness.  But the sisters fell in love with his vivid colours instantly and became his biggest patron, buying 500 of Matisse’s works in total, and becoming very close to the entire family.  In a short BBC film shown at the museum, Matisse’s grandson Claude Duthuit, recounts meeting the sisters on several occasions, and the friendship they formed with his grandmother.  The Cones were thrilled to host the Matisse family for dinner at their Baltimore home, preparing traditional American cuisine.    Duthuit said poignantly, “My family owes a lot to The Cones …. They were very close to Matisse … very close to my grandmother.”

If you can’t get to the Jewish Museum before September 25th, aim for Vancouver next year, where the exhibit will travel to.  Or better yet, build in a layover in Baltimore to see the entire collection.  The sisters bequeathed all of it to the museum on the condition that art within the city be elevated to enrich inhabitants’ lives.   If you love a great back-story, as much as great art, this is not to be missed.

Jewish Museum

1109 Fifth Avenue
at 92nd Street, New York, NY
+1 212 423 3200

Baltimore Museum of Art

10 Art Museum Drive
Baltimore, MD
+1 443 573 1700

Art house … Claribel Cone’s Baltimore apartment


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