- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2008

THE CONE SISTERS OF BALTIMORE: COLLECTING AT FULL TILT

By Ellen B. Hirschland and Nancy Hirschland Ramage

Northwestern University Press, $34.95, 352 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Anyone who has visited the Baltimore Museum of Art and seen the remarkable collection of postimpressionist art known as the Cone Collection has reason to be grateful to the two local citizens who made this magnificent gift. A century ago, Claribel and Etta Cone were well known in their hometown. But in the 21st century, how many of the thousands of visitors who enjoy their splendid bounty each year are familiar with anything about these very atypical Victorian spinsters beyond the remarkable physiognomies and singular miens captured in the sketches of each done by their friend, Henri Matisse, or the one of Claribel entitled “Bonjour Mlle Cone” by Pablo Picasso?



“The Cone Sisters of Baltimore,” written by their great-niece, Ellen Hirschland and her daughter Nancy Ramage, a professor of art, reveals that Claribel’s and Etta’s lives were indeed as colorful as those startling Matisses they collected and as deeply odd as their Picassos. Written with the benefit of familial and firsthand personal knowledge on the part of Ms. Hirschland (who knew both sisters and traveled to Europe with Etta) and insight into art history by Ms. Ramage, this beautifully and lavishly illustrated volume truly puts the Cone Collection into the crucial context of its creators. As in the Chester Dale and Mellon Collections in the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington, the taste and something ineffable of the collector is stamped on the art that the Cones amassed so boldly in the first decades of the 20th century.

If there is a conventional wisdom about the Cone Collection it is that they were merely rich women who knew Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo and that the Steins told them what to buy: In other words, crudely put, that the Steins had the taste and the Cones had the money. Well, this book certainly debunks that myth, sweeps it away once and for all. The Cone sisters did get to know Gertrude Stein when she lived in Baltimore and it was she who introduced them to Matisse and Cezanne and Picasso, but their taste, as this study reveals, was if anything superior to hers in daring and originality and discrimination.

Stein is one of those characters who once loomed very large, an overwhelming cultural icon dominating her age. But a lot of that was due to her amazing capacity for self-promotion and in the six decades since her death, without her here to publicize herself, her legend has waned. It has probably never recovered from the vicious posthumous attack upon her in “A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway, a formidable debunker of reputation when he put pen and mind to it. The authors are very interesting on the relationship between the famously lesbian Stein and the never-married Cone sisters, which was emotionally heated and possibly more. Certainly Stein’s longtime companion and literary alter ego, Alice B. Toklas, loathed both sisters, and they reciprocated her feelings. Stein and Etta were each opaque and elusive in their words on the subject. But this book is judicious: It presents all the evidence and is honest enough to conclude that there is no sure way of knowing whether there was actually any overt sexual activity between Stein and the Cone sisters.

Both sisters were formidable characters and there is a lot to fascinate in this book beyond the gallery and the bedroom. Unlike Gertrude Stein, who started medical school but never finished or qualified as a doctor, Claribel was a pioneering physician who held important posts at various medical institutions, taught pathology and pathological histology, and published articles in medical journals with titles like “Encysted Dropsy of the Peritoneum Secondary to Utero-Tubal Tuberculosis and Associated With Tubercular Pleurisy, Generalized Tuberculosis and Pyococcal Infection.” She also conducted research with a veritable roll call of the most distinguished medical scientists of her time, both in this country and Europe: Sir William Osler, Simon Flexner, Paul Ehrlich, Elie Metchnikoff. If anyone personified a rebuttal to C.P. Snow’s bifurcated view of “Two Cultures,” it was Dr. Claribel Cone, doctor and medical researcher, art connoisseur and collector.

Although Etta’s life lacked her sister’s stellar professional accomplishments, this book manages to make her at least as interesting a woman as Claribel. Partly this is because of the richer quality of her emotional life with friends and family, but also because of the force of her personality which resembled her sister’s despite the surface differences. The authors quote longtime Johns Hopkins professor George Boas’ moving tribute to the Cones:

“But lest they become a name on a plaque so soon, it is just as well for a last time to declare one’s gratitude not only for the material possessions which they brought together only to give away, but also for the less tangible gifts which they were always ready to dispense so lavishly, their hospitality, their encouragement, their appreciation, their friendship. One went to see the Cone Collection; one came away with a vivid image of two beautiful people.”

By illuminating the quality of those two distinguished lives, “The Cone Sisters of Baltimore” will ensure that for those who read it anyway, they will never just be names on a plaque.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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