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July 29, 2014

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Elaine Gustafson, curator of the Weatherspoon Gallery in Greensboro, has put together an exhibit of works of art collected by Etta, right, and Claribel Cone. Photos courtesy the Baltimore Museum of Art

Originally published: 2012-11-23 08:20:55
Last modified: 2012-11-23 08:20:55

Cone family art on exhibit at Weatherspoon

Reprinted with permission of the UNCG Campus Weekly

Elaine Gustafson is first and foremost a teacher. And she has a lot to share about the fascinating Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta.

In the Weatherspoon exhibition space, she points out portraits of the two  — the older Claribel, in her stiff Edwardian dress, who went to medical school, graduating first in her class. And Etta, the ninth of the 13 siblings, in charge of the family’s domestic arrangements — and with her passion for music and arts. When brother Moses Cone gave her $300 to spruce up the Baltimore home, she spent it all on art. They were quite liberated, for their time, the curator notes. “However they chose to dress conservatively, in an almost Renaissance style.”

The exhibition “The Cone Sisters Collect” recently opened in the Weatherspoon. Organized by Gustafson, curator of collections since 2008, it presents a sampling of their gift to the Weatherspoon six decades ago.

Sisters of prominent Greensboro textile magnates and philanthropists Moses and Caesar Cone, the women frequently traveled from their Baltimore home to Europe to purchase art in the first decades of the 20th century.

Their circle included artists, musicians and writers. Gertrude Stein was a friend. So was Henri Matisse. They were early patrons of Matisse, important to him financially. “When they started buying (his works) — it started in 1906 — he was considered insane, because he was using these bright colors and abstracting. He was not selling commercially. They really provided important financial support for him.”

The sisters bequeathed the Weatherspoon six Matisse bronze sculptures and 71 of his works on paper.

“They supported Picasso early on, as well,” she adds, moving to another part of the room with Picasso works. “They purchased his work during his early career, when the ‘Harlequin’ was a common theme, and later in his abstract, cubist period. Both eras are represented in the exhibition.”

Their collection is “eclectic,” as visitors may see. Japanese prints over here. Etchings by Rembrandt over there. Contemporary Baltimore artists they supported. Their sisters’ home was filled with treasures.

In 1949, Etta Cone, the surviving sister, bequeathed part of their collection to the Weatherspoon Art Museum. Among the 242 objects are the several dozen on view in this special exhibition.

Once you’ve seen the art, have a seat on the sofa Gustafson installed, with coffee-table books about the sisters, samplings of their letters and more. And consider you’re in their home. Fact is, their home had many of these works hanging all about the walls.

In the paint scheme for the gallery, Gustafson even used one of their favorite colors, an Edwardian shade of green.

In a display are clothing and personal items. She steps to the display table in the center of the room. A 1914 letter, she points out, reveals that Claribel was not stuck in Germany at the start of World War I, as some have thought. “If you read the letter you see that she chose to stay in Germany because she found it really fascinating,” said Gustafson. “She ended up staying for years.”

As curator, Gustafson wanted visitors to get a sense of the sisters’ personalities. “I feel these personal effects make you feel more connected to the sisters.” The curator sees that objects tell stories. In that sense, “they’re living things.”

The name Cone is all around Greensboro, she notes: Cone Health System, Cone Boulevard, Cone Elementary, Cone Art Building. “This family has been important to Greensboro and important to the Weatherspoon,” said Gustafson. The exhibition has given her the opportunity to learn much more about the two sisters. “They led fascinating lives.”

Appreciating art involves more than considering the pieces on display — there so many facets to convey to museum visitors. “I was pre-med (at Wheaton College in Massachusetts),” Gustafson explains when asked how her career began. “I had to take a freshman course requirement in the humanities. I took Art History — and fell in love with it. I realized Art History has everything —  politics, religion, literature, science, perspectives. …”

As the museum’s curator of collections, she helps visitors — whether students or the general public — consider them all.

The Weatherspoon’s exhibition is in conjunction with a traveling exhibition by the Baltimore Museum of Art, currently on view at Duke University’s Nasher Museum.

The Cone Sisters’ Collection Q&A
weatherspoon curator

“The Cone Sisters Collect” is a sampling of the many artworks Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone bequeathed to the Weatherspoon Art Museum in 1949.  A few frequently asked questions are answered below to aid in understanding the sisters’ considerable legacy, as well as the impact they had on the art world in general.

Q: Who were Claribel and Etta Cone?
A: Claribel and Etta were two of 13 children of Herman and Helen Cone, mid-19th century German-Jewish immigrants who achieved success in America in the dry goods and grocery industry and whose sons developed the South’s textile industry. Prosperous and well-educated, the sisters were prominent members of the intelligentsia of Baltimore. Claribel (1864-1929), the strong-willed fifth child, graduated first in her class from Woman’s Medical College in 1890.
Dominant and authoritative, she continued her education at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School and pursued a career as a pathologist, teaching and conducting research in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Munich, as well as publishing several articles on her findings.
Etta (1870-1949), the quieter and more subservient ninth child, managed the domestic details of the Cone household, while simultaneously pursuing interests in music, history, the French language and art.

Q: How did the Cone Collection start? What consist of?
A: In 1898 Moses Cone, the eldest of the 13 siblings, gave Etta $300 to spruce up the family home in Baltimore. Rather than buying new curtains or pillows for the couch, Etta purchased five oil paintings by the American impressionist Theodore Robinson from the artist’s estate sale held in New York City. This bold acquisition defied the 19th century Gilded Age’s penchant for paintings by European old masters. Then, in the spring of 1901, at age 30, Etta traveled for the first time to Europe accompanied by two girlfriends. During this life-transforming trip, she fell in love with art, in part due to the exuberant art historical guidance of Leo Stein, brother to the author Gertrude Stein and an old family friend from Baltimore.  
Etta shared her love of art with her older sister Claribel, and the two began buying artworks in earnest in the autumn of 1905 and winter of 1906. The profits from the family’s textile business provided the sisters with a lifelong allowance that ensured their financial independence and funded their many purchases.
Compulsive consumers, the two women passionately collected avant-garde European art and unusual bric-a-brac, such as Japanese prints, antique furniture, textiles and jewelry, all without professional advice or counsel. Although some of the decorative items they acquired were historic and  religious, their “exotic” nature, beauty and unusual character made them new and therefore modern to the Cone sisters.
At the same time that they were developing their collection of modern art, the sisters were becoming acquainted through their frequent trips to Europe with a wide circle of significant artists whom they befriended and supported financially.

Q: What was the Cones’ guiding principle in collecting art?
A: Between 1906 and 1922, Claribel and Etta stopped buying art, in large part because of World War I. When they resumed in 1922, it was in earnest. The sisters eventually acquired approximately 3,000 modern paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and other objects, including more than 500 artworks by Henri Matisse, which resulted in the largest and most comprehensive collection of his art in the world. They also acquired 113 works by Pablo Picasso, including an important group of prints and drawings ranging from the artist’s early years in Barcelona to his Rose period in Paris (1905-06). The Cone sisters had a simple maxim: Buy what you like and make it a part of your daily life and environment.

Q: Were the Cone sisters famous in their own time?
A: The Cone sisters participated in the cultural life of Baltimore, but were considered eccentric by local society for two primary reasons: their unconventional dress and their collection of modern art which was generally perplexing, if not displeasing, to the majority of their friends and acquaintances.
In steep contrast to their embrace of the most avant-garde art of their day, the sisters retained an old-fashioned aura about themselves in mannerisms, dress and furnishings. Both women wore heavy, ankle-length black clothing even though fashion had shifted to more modern dress. Moreover, they augmented their Edwardian style with exotic woven shawls and Renaissance-era jewelry.   
Although the artworks in the Cone Collection were not universally understood, by the end of the 1920s the art world recognized the collection and began sending the sisters requests for loans to major museum exhibitions.  After Claribel’s death in 1929, and as a tribute to her, Etta began working on an illustrated catalogue of the Cone Collection that she later distributed to select museum directors, collectors and friends in 1934.

Q: Why did the Weatherspoon receive part of the Cone Collection?
A: As early as 1887, Claribel’s and Etta’s older brothers, Moses and Ceasar Cone, began establishing and consolidating the first textile mills in the South. Etta often visited her extended family both in Greensboro and at their homes in Asheville and Blowing Rock.
Claribel’s will of 1929 stipulated that her impressive art collection first should go to Etta, and then upon Etta’s death, to the Baltimore Museum of Art if the city ever embraced modern art. Upon Etta’s death in 1949, she bequeathed both hers and her sister’s collections to the Baltimore Museum of Art. However, the Weatherspoon Art Museum also received a significant gift through the efforts of Etta’s sister-in-law, Laura Weill (Mrs. Julius) Cone, a 1910 alumna of Woman’s College (now UNCG) and an early advocate for the Weatherspoon who encouraged Etta to help the fledgling college art gallery.
According to the terms of Etta’s will, the Baltimore Museum of Art had the right of first selection, but then was required to turn over any remaining or duplicate objects to Woman’s College.
Consequently the Weatherspoon received 242 artworks, including work by Raoul Dufy, John Graham, Marie Laurencin, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Jacques Villon, among others.  
When the Cone sisters’ gift arrived in January 1950, it was shown at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery (the precursor to WAM), the former Elliott Center, Jackson Library and other campus locations.
During the years, members of UNCG’s faculty have lectured on it many times and continue to use it as a teaching tool to this day.

For more information and stories, see The Blowing Rocket.

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