Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel: A new look into the lives of the Cone sisters
Growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s and 60s, we got our doses of high culture at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The National Gallery was only an hour away, but I don’t remember visiting it until I was in college.
To get to the BMA, we drove from our neighborhood—where there were lots of Jewish families—across a main road (sometimes referred to as “the River Jordan”) through a neighborhood then largely off limits to Jews, to the museum. At the bottom of the front steps was a full-size copy of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Once inside, we usually started by daring each other to visit the mummy on display in the basement. The upstairs galleries were full of paintings of the thoroughbred horses that were almost as important to the local culture as the hard shell crab.
But the jewel in the museum’s crown then as now was the Cone Collection. This was the first place I saw paintings by Matisse and his contemporaries. Little did I know that the collection amassed by Etta and Claribel Cone was one of the finest anywhere in the world.
Somehow I did know that the women who created the Cone Collection and, after many years of indecision, bequeathed it to the people of their, and my, native city, were Jewish. My grandparents had lived for several years in the building where the sisters and one of their brothers had adjoining apartments with 17 rooms crammed full of art brought home from their world travels. I knew, too, that there was a connection between Etta and Claribel (as we always called them) and Gertrude Stein, another member of Baltimore’s German Jewish elite. My great aunt was married to Gertrude Stein’s nephew. Long before I read anything by or about Stein, I knew that she was, as we might say here at JWA, a Jewess with a bad attitude.
The story of Etta and Dr. Claribel (who pursued the medical career that Gertrude Stein abandoned) is beautifully told in Susan Fillion’s new book, Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel: Bringing Matisse to America, published by David R. Godine. Generously illustrated by reproductions of paintings in the Cone Collection and by Fillion’s own inspired paintings, the book relates how these two unmarried, Jewish women transformed themselves into serious art collectors and early patrons and lifelong friends of Matisse. While Fillion had a young adult audience in mind, readers of any age will enjoy her graceful, accessible, and informative storytelling as much as I did.