Although her studies ended in high school, Etta was a dedicated student of art and history. Even before his visits to Europe and serious forays into the collection, Etta’s eye was way ahead of the world around him. The first paintings she ever purchased, five small oils by American impressionist Theodore Robinson, were chosen before Etta went to Paris, and even before those with deep roots in modern art circles. do not pursue similar work. In fact, the oils have been kept in the basement of the BMA for decades, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that Robinson’s work was better appreciated.
Nancy Ramage, the sisters’ great-great-niece and art historian based in Ithaca, New York, grew up listening to the stories of Etta and Claribel from her mother, Ellen Hirschland. Hirschland, nÃ©e Berney, was devoted to her great-aunt Etta and traveled with her in her youth. Hirschland, who died in 1999, and Ramage contributed several books and articles to the study of the sisters and their collection.
“[Etta] was kind of the intellect behind this collection, and it was she who started collecting, âsays Ramage. âInitially, Claribel was not at all interested in painting or art. She was studying medicine and doing pathological work. But Etta was making choices, especially those Robinsons she had, the first paintings she bought, that were just remarkable. She was so ahead of her time.
Etta absorbed all she could about art history, first on her own, then under the tutelage of the Steins, who were living abroad in 1901 when Etta first traveled to Europe. She visited Florence with Leo and spent long days with Gertrude in Paris, visiting galleries, museums and shops. Etta returned to Baltimore with new works of art and a growing passion for collecting. When her mother died at the end of the following year, Etta, then 32, found herself free from family obligations, well connected, and with a personal income. She embarked for Europe with Claribel the following summer.
A MATTER OF TASTE
Throughout the first decade of the 1900s, the sisters traveled to Europe, studying art, spending time with the Steins and their circle of friends, and, for Claribel, conducting medical research in Germany. Etta found the time to type the manuscript of Stein’s first novel,
Three lives, and receive a marriage proposal from Mahonri Young, grandson of Brigham Young. (It did not work.)
On a visit to Paris in 1905, the sisters attended the Salon d’Automne, where they had their first real look at avant-garde art. Bars of color and inaccurate shapes filled a room, including Matisse’s “Woman in a Hat”, a colorful portrait with bright teal and unfinished quality, which Leo Stein called “the meanest blot of paint.” He had ever seen. (After some thought, he and Gertrude purchased the painting, which is now on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) Leo then took Gertrude and Etta with him to visit a young stranger from Spain who had exhibited works at the Salon, and soon the Steins and Cone Sisters were regular visitors to Pablo Picasso’s Paris studio. They often bought her drawings, in part out of charity to the starving artist – this was a habit of Etta in particular; she also supported MICA students in difficulty in their country, but also because they admired her work. (They never bought anything without what Ramage and his mother described as âgreat care and a safety of taste.â)
âEtta tasted phenomenal,â says Ramage. âThe fact, for example, that she bought so many drawings over the years. . . they are not splashy, but they are incredibly valuable and descriptive of the artist’s thought. I’m not just talking about the Picassos that she bought on that first visit when she might have been doing charity work, but throughout her life she bought drawings, engravings, and prints that are sensitive and very important works.
It wasn’t long after this monumental salon that Etta met Henri Matisse, the artist who would become a constant friend and influence for the rest of his life. After the Salon d’Automne, Matisse often finds himself in the Stein apartments in Paris, one of the few places where his work is exhibited. In January 1906, Etta began to acquire works by the 36-year-old painter. It should be noted that it took many years for Matisse to gain the respect of the art world as a whole. Even seven years later, when Matisse’s works were loaned to the 1913 Armory Show, one reviewer called the artist’s contributions “the most hideous monstrosities ever perpetrated in the name of long-suffering art. “.
But despite everything, Etta remained a staunch supporter, and when Claribel discovered her own interest in collecting, she also began to acquire non-traditional pieces with marked enthusiasm. The older sister Cone was often credited for the quality of the collection, but the sisters’ contributions were simply different.
“Certainly [Claribelâs] The purchase of Matisse’s ‘Blue Nude’ completely changed the content of the collection, âsays Katy Rothkopf, senior curator of European painting and sculpture at the BMA and director of the Anne and Ben Cone memorial at the new Center of Matisse studies. âIt had effects in the art world. With her purchases, she made these big statements. Etta made bolder, brighter purchases later in life, but she had a strong eye for small works, especially when it came to Matisse. “She really got into all the media and was fascinated by it all.” Rothkopf said. “It really is his legacy.”