The internationally renowned Cone Collection of modern art is the crown jewel of the BMA. In the early 20th century, Baltimore sisters Claribel and Etta Cone visited the Paris studios of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso and began assembling one of the world’s most important art collections. They acquired an exceptional collection of approximately 3,000 objects, which were displayed in their Baltimore apartments. The highlight is a group of 500 works by Matisse, considered the largest and most significant in the world. The sisters also acquired masterpieces by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh, as well as a variety of textiles, jewelry, furniture, and African, Asian, and Near Eastern art.
In 1898, Etta Cone began collecting art with the purchase of five paintings by American Impressionist Theodore Robinson to decorate her family home. Supported financially by the successful Cone textile business, Claribel and Etta made annual trips to Europe to purchase art. They often visited avant-garde writer Gertude Stein and her brother Leo in Paris, and through them became acquainted with a wide circle of artists, musicians, and writers who would influence their collecting. Etta Cone met Matisse in 1906, and her initial purchase of several drawings marked the beginning of a life-long passion for his art. Among Matisse’s first patrons, the Cone sisters collected throughout his entire career 42 oil paintings, 18 sculptures, 36 drawings, 155 prints, and seven illustrated books, as well as 250 drawings, prints, and copper plates from the artist’s first illustrated book, Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé. The sisters also acquired 114 works by Picasso, including an important group of prints and drawings from the artist’s early years in Barcelona to his Rose period in Paris (1905–1906.)
The Cone Collection grew to include such masterworks as Matisse’s iconic Blue Nude (1907) and Large Reclining Nude (1935), Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry (c. 1897), Paul Gauguin’s Vahine no te vi (Woman of the Mango) (1892), and Pablo Picasso’s Mother and Child (1922). During their extensive travels, the Cone sisters also purchased important works by American artists; more than 1,000 prints and drawings and illustrated books; a large group of textiles; jewelry, furniture, and other decorative arts; African art, Japanese prints; and antique ivories and bronzes.
Competition among museums for The Cone Collection began as early as 1940, but Claribel insisted that it go to The Baltimore Museum of Art if “the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore became improved.” Thus achieved, the collection came to the BMA upon Etta Cone’s death in 1949, and has been on view in the BMA’s Cone Wing since 1957. It has been the subject of exhibitions at prestigious museums around the world and was celebrated in Baltimore in 2001 with redesigned and expanded galleries referred to by The Wall Street Journal as “…the most illuminating installation of a museum’s permanent collection (or part of one) in recent memory.”