SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.
Are you a collector of recipes, books, autographs, cell phone numbers? The Cone Sisters of Baltimore collected art - 3,000 pieces of it, including 500 works by Matisse. In the late 19th-early 20th century, they had the greatest private collection of Matisse in the world.
Right now at the Jewish Museum in New York, some 50 of their holdings are on view, borrowed from the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Sisters left their collection to their hometown art museum.
Joining us to poke around the collection and the collectors, Karen Levitov, associate curator at New York's Jewish Museum. Hi, Karen.
Ms. KAREN LEVITOV (Associate Curator, New York Jewish Museum): Hi. How are you?
STAMBERG: Good, thank you. And Katy Rothkopf, Baltimore Museum of Art curator. Welcome to you too.
Ms. KATY ROTHKOPF (Curator, Baltimore Museum of Art): Well, thank you so much.
STAMBERG: Let's start with you, Katy, because it was really your hometown ladies that we're talking about. What were those sisters like?
Ms. ROTHKOPF: They were unique individuals. Claribel Cone, who was the elder sister, was very intellectual, really smart, very sure of herself. She was from the first generation of female doctors in this country. Her younger sister, Etta, was very warm, very kind, very generous, from what we understand from the family. She was the one to begin the collection in 1898 and she is the one who bought most of the works in the collection.
STAMBERG: What was the main reason, though, for collecting? Was it just sheer passion? Was it the cache of owning these what in their day were really avant-garde pieces? Was it education America or Americans on what was going on in Europe?
Ms. ROTHKOPF: I think it was really for their own personal pleasure. They did not intend to give their collection to a museum early on. I think it was to decorate their apartments. We think they became interested in collecting because of an early friendship with Gertrude and Leo Stein, who lived in Baltimore in the 1890s when they went to school at Johns Hopkins University. And that, I think, really began the seed.
STAMBERG: And what was it about Matisse, because that really is so much the centerpiece of that collection. Karen, you get to look at an awful lot of them right now there in New York. What do you think?
Ms. LEVITOV: Both the Cones and the Steins first saw Matisse's work at the Salon d'Eau Tome(ph) in Paris in 1905. And I think at first the Cones were quite shocked, really sounded quite scary, because he used colors that was not based on nature. You know, his wife had a green stripe down the middle of her face. But as time went on and they got to know him, I think, you know, for the Cone Sisters he was such a gentleman and he was their kind of people.
And so his paintings and drawings and sculpture, you know, started to appeal more and more and more the more they got to know him.
STAMBERG: Picasso was in there too though, wasn't he?
Ms. ROTHKOPF: Yes. Etta met Picasso in 1905. Gertrude introduced them. And think Etta really was interested in his work and by the end of her collecting career, she and her sister bought more than 113 works by him. And they were quite fond of him. They liked his work. I think his lifestyle was a little more shocking to them. I think they felt a little bit more comfortable with Matisse, who was a proper gentleman, married with a family.
STAMBERG: Wore a three-piece suit.
Ms. ROTHKOPF: Wore a three-piece suit, was very clean and well put together.
STAMBERG: Yeah, yeah.
Ms. LEVITOV: And they - Etta did - commission Matisse to make a portrait of Claribel after her death and Matisse ended up making four drawings of Claribel and six of Etta...
STAMBERG: Oh my goodness.
Ms. LEVITOV: ...which he then gave to Etta as a gift.
STAMBERG: And how did they live with all this stuff, 'cause there was so much of it?
Ms. ROTHKOPF: Well, each sister had their own apartment. They were across the hall from each other. And Claribel's collection became so large that she in fact rented another apartment in the building. She gave over her apartment, (unintelligible) what she called her museum.
Ms. LEVITOV: The photographs of their apartment showed that there's art just floor to ceiling and wall to wall and they had fabrics draped on every surface. And Etta kept Claribel's apartment for the 20 years after she passed away and continued to add art to it, you know, continued this idea of Claribel's museum.
STAMBERG: Where did the money come from?
Ms. ROTHKOPF: Well, the money came from the textile business. The Cone Sisters' two eldest brothers, along with their father, opened the Cone Mills in North Carolina. The Cone Mills were the primary suppliers of denim to the war effort during World War I. After the war, the family was much richer and so there was much more money to spend on works of art and bobbles and fabrics and all kinds of wonderful things.
STAMBERG: They collected avant-garde but they went just so far, didn't they?
Ms. LEVITOV: They often collected portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, interior scenes. And although their taste then grew much more bold and radical, they didn't venture into cubism for example. But they had kind of a taste that was consistent throughout their collecting.
Ms. ROTHKOPF: I think for them many of the purchases they made were souvenirs of this amazing time that they were spending out of the country - in Paris, in Italy, in the south of France. The same way you or I may bring home postcards or, you know, a little scarf or something on our trips abroad, they were bringing home these gorgeous examples of some of the greatest contemporary art of their day.
STAMBERG: Karen, what is the one that you were going to tuck away just before they start packing it all up to go back to Baltimore or whatever the next stop is?
Ms. LEVITOV: Well, there's so many that I love but I think that the one that I've probably grown most attached to is Matisse's Large Reclining Nude. While he was painting it, Matisse had it photographed and sent the 22 photographs to Etta Cone in Baltimore. And so she got to be involved in the process and see it in its different stages. And then, of course, she bought it. It's really a lovely story as well as a fabulous painting.
STAMBERG: Thanks so much. Karen Levitov of the Jewish Museum in New York and Katy Rothkopf from the Baltimore Art Museum. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum of New York is called "Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters." The show runs until September 25, and you can see pieces of the Cone collection at NPR.org.