Telluride Inside… And Out In New York: A Visit To The Jewish Museum

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Matisse, "Large Reclining Nude"

Picture Telluride without Levi's and denim. There would be lots of locals running around half-naked. And naked walls instead of walls filled with art in the apartments of the Cone sisters of Baltimore. Their massive collection – about 3,000 pieces including some 500 Matisses – was in large part built on the back of denim. The family business, The Cone Mills Corporation, produced cloth for work clothes and, during WW1, for military uniforms. But the company was also the largest supplier of denim to Levi Strauss. Their brothers' support of their two spinster sisters enabled (Dr.) Claribel and Etta (likely a former lover of Gertrude Stein, a major mentor) to devote their lives to collecting masterpieces of modern art.

"Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore" is the featured show (through September 25) at The Jewish Museum in Manhattan on the corner of 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue, once the Warburg mansion. The exhibition, meant to reinforce the idea the two sisters were very important collectors of cutting-edge art, not mere "shoppers"  as dismissed by their detractors, showcases about 50 of their finest gems.

The show, arranged in order of acquisition, begins modestly with a genteel canvas, "In the Grove,"(1888) by American Impressionist Theodore Robinson, an under-recognized painter who had lived and worked in Giverny, France, near Claude Monet and his lilies. The exhibition picks up a head of speed quickly, with a knock-out drawing, "La Coiffure" (1906) by a Pablo Picasso, the other titan-in-the-making like Matisse, given a leg up (effectively rent money) by acquisitions made early in their careers by the two sisters. One very funny self-portrait by Picasso says it all. In it, Picasso pictures himself, protruding belly, hat in hand, greeting the new collector as if to say: "More, please." And there was more, lots more, including a delicate pencil portrait of Claribel, executed in 1922, when the artist was already highly successful in the Parisian art scene and by then, an old acquaintance of the patron Picasso referred to as "The Empress." The buxom figure drawn in the retro Neo-Classical tradition style favored by the likes of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres resembles another famous Picasso portrait of Gertrude Stein, the doyenne of the Parisian art scene at the time, who is equally intimidating. (Drawings by Ingres form the centerpiece of a show currently at the Morgan Library. Stay tuned for more on that.)

The rooms at the Jewish Room razzle-dazzle with many more fabulous Picasso drawings and oils, plus jewels by Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Courbet, even a small and wondrous Delacroix, "Perseus and Andromeda," (1847), once part of Leo Stein's collection, and a gallery filled with exotica – an elaborate Turkish belt, an Buddhist priest's mantle, ivory bracelets from Cameroon and examples of Chantilly lace – but it is Matisse, not Picasso, who steals the show from his traditional rival, including small sculptures.

While the Cones sisters fully embraced the emerging avant-garde scene in Europe wholesale, their clear preference for the female subject is reflected in the number of stunning Matisse Odalisques on the walls of the Museum. Odalisque is the term used loosely to refer to the artistic depiction of a woman, often scantily clad in North African or Middle eastern costume, against the backdrop of a luxurious, ornate interior. "Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent, Ornamental Background and Checkerboard"  (1928), is one of a number of a fine examples in this snapshot of the Cones sister's collection. A lithograph, "Large Odalisque with Striped Pantaloons," (1925), is another stand-out for the languorous hedonism it captures.

Matisse's "interior, Flowers and Parakeets," (1924), purportedly one of Etta's favorite images, amounts to a metaphor for the world the Cone sisters and their aesthetic: the sumptuous still life is filled with textiles and decorative objects vibrantly colored, patterned and textured. The Cone sisters biographer, Mary Gabriel, sums up best in a short biopic that accompanies the show: "They had stepped through that Matisse frame and were living there."

When Claribel died in 1929, Etta commissioned Matisse to draw a memorial portrait. The artist labored on the project for more than three years, eventually producing six studies of Etta in addition to four of Claribel. Matisse then presented these portraits to Etta as a gift and sign of his affection for both women. In this work, the fine quality of the line and the remodeling of the sitter with erased markings suggest Matisse's dedication to capturing a sincere and honest representation of his late, great patron. The artist noted her "lovely hair with ample waves in the old style" and described her as "a great beauty, noble and gracious."

Add "visionary" and you have a full  description of the Cone sisters, who shaped this "collection of collections." Hmm…Victorian on the surface. Edgy inside. That also wraps up the two sisters. And Telluride too.

(photo courtesy of the Jewish Museum)

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