The Cone Collection

Matisse, Picasso and Impressionist Masters from the Cone Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, January 1990)

Everything about Paul Gauguin‘s 1892 painting Vahine no te Vi (Woman of the Mango) conveys a sense of the fullness of life — the luxuriance of the color, the lushness of the fruit, and the dreamy serenity of the Tahitian woman who holds an orange mango in one strong brown hand. Her dress is a rich, deep purple; a few white flowers float in her long black hair; and in her dark eyes is the inward gaze which Wordsworth called “the bliss of solitude.

You see that look on a woman’s face again and again in the Museum of Fine Arts’ show of 50 paintings, drawings and sculptures from the Cone Collection. All the works of art here were purchased by two wealthy, cultured sisters from Baltimore, Claribel and Etta Cone, who traveled to Europe, became friends with Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, and fell in love with Modern Art. Between 1898 and 1949 (Claribel died in 1929), they bought hundreds of paintings, thousands of drawings, dozens of sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Renoir, Edgar Degas, and other early modern artists.

The Cone sisters were independent modern women, and it’s clear that they found in modern art an emblem of their own independence and vitality. They also found an affirmation of themselves as women. Most of the images here are images of women, and almost all of them have the same expression on their face — a look of contentment, completeness, and self-fulfillment.

You see that look in Picasso’s 1906 bronze Woman Combing her Hair, where the sweeping gesture of the woman’s arm as she pulls back her hair becomes a self-embrace. Her hair and body flow together; her eyes are closed; she abandons herself to her own physicality. Her body is both solid and liquid: earthy and massive but at the same time flowing and alive. You see it in Matisse’s 1929 The Yellow Dress, which shows a woman in a soft yellow-green dress is sitting in a chair at the center of a room that’s a labyrinth of patterns: crisscrosses, zigzags, hexagons, girds and grilles. A yellow hat frames her pale oval face; her eyes are dark; and she looks supremely self-contained. She is the soft, still center of her own world.

Matisse’s women are the vibrant centers of a life composed of food and flowers and earth and light and memories and dreams. They are mysterious, luxurious, and self-contained. In a small charcoal drawing of a reclining nude, the lines defining the woman’s body are overlaid on a cloud of grey smudges, swirls, and erasures of charcoal, so that she seems to be emerging from a mist of gray, like Venus born of the sea-foam.

Matisse’s paintings reveal the poetry of daily life — the joie de vie. In his 1937 Purple Robe and Anemones, a woman in a purple dress sits in a room filled with fruit and flowers. The room is a classic Matisse interior — a soft and sumptuous environment, filled with patterned rugs and screens, flowery drapes, vases full of flowers, bowls full of fruit — a bouquet of voluptuous color and lyrical lines — an image of accumulation and fullness — a bower filled to overflowing with the bounty of the earth.

Matisse’s 1935 Large Reclining Nude is accompanied by several large photographs of the work in progress, which help give you a sense of the rigor of the underlying structure of his art. Matisse worked like a dancer who practices incessantly for a few perfect moments on the stage. He worked out every color, every line, every nuance until he achieved a perfect balance of color and form, shape and line, so his finished work looks effortless — like dancing.

Early versions of Large Reclining Nude are soft and lyrical, but as the work progresses, figure and ground stretch out and separate from each another, the nude becomes more monumental, and the tension heightens between the glowing pink flesh of her body and the geometric grid of the blue bedspread. The final painting achieves a stunning balance of radical reductions and lyrical simplification of color, line and form.

Matisse’s work is so beautiful that it’s difficult now to imagine the shock with which it was received by many of his contemporaries and the courage it took for the Cone sisters to buy it. Matisse was influenced by the arts of Asia and Africa — by the flatness and vibrant color of Persian painting, Oriental carpets, Moroccan light. Like all great artists, he changed the way you look at art; what now seems simple was at the time an extraordinarily bold and complex transformation.

The Cone sisters collected Art because they loved it and wanted to live with it. Photographs of their Baltimore apartments show rooms filled to overflowing with ornate furniture, Oriental rugs, and works of art. Their art collection became an emblem of their secret selves — a vision of the richness of their inner lives.

Picture by picture and sculpture by sculpture, “Matisse, Picasso and Impressionist Masters from the Cone Collection” is a splendid show with many visual pleasures. But the collection seems diminished in its ponderous and rather antiseptic installation at the MFA — a little sad and faded, like a tropical plant that survives but doesn’t really thrives indoors. (It makes you appreciate Isabella Gardner‘s genius in not allowing her collection to be dismantled and removed from its lush surroundings.) An excellent catalogue, “Dr. Claribel & Miss Etta,” written by Brenda Richardson and published by the Baltimore Museum of Art, gives a warmer picture of these remarkable women and their collection of art. But finally, it is the art itself that best communicates the spirit of the Cone sisters and their collection.

That spirit thrives in paintings like Matisse’s 1937 Purple Robe and Anemones, which shows a dark-haired woman with dreamy eyes leaning her head on her hand at a table covered with fruit and a big bowl of anemones — Etta Cone’s favorite flower. It’s a ritual moment of stillness, as simple and beautiful as the pouring of wine and the breaking of bread amid the clutter of a life truly lived — a grateful little prayer for the flow and the fullness of life.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebecccanemser.com

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