The Weatherspoon celebrates Cone collection

by Jordan Green

Great fortunes often beget great art collections.

That’s the case with sisters Dr. Claribel and Etta Cone, two Baltimore ladies who favored severe Victorian dress, but consorted with modernist writer Gertrude Stein in Paris and collected the sensuous nudes of impressionist master Henri Matisse, not to mention patronizing Pablo Picasso when he was unknown.

The Cone sisters called Baltimore home, but their extraordinary collection is inextricably linked with Greensboro.

Their brothers, Moses and Ceasar Cone, founded what would become Cone Mills Corp., a Southern textile giant that gained market advantage from manufacturing denim in proximity to the cotton fields that provided the raw material relative to the Northeast, where most mills were concentrated at the time. Greensboro had one distinct asset — a railroad junction — and the arrival of the textile industry launched it as a city.

Lucky for a number of art museums, including the Weatherspoon in Greensboro, Claribel and Etta’s collecting trips to Europe began in the early 1900s, just as their brothers’ textile fortune was exploding in North Carolina. The family fortune allowed them to maintain independent lifestyles, and continuing textile profits fed an ever-growing collection of early 20th century art that cluttered their Baltimore apartments and would be coveted by the likes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“These ladies were not pioneers of jeans chic,” Porter Aichele, the former head of the UNCG Art Department, told an avid crowd packed into the auditorium at the Weatherspoon for her lecture on Sunday. “Their fashion tastes tended towards cashmere and silk — my kinda girls.”

In addition to visiting the studios and salons of Paris, the Cone sisters traveled the world buying textiles and decorative arts from across Europe, Asia and Africa.

“They had just begun a lifelong shopping trip in 1907,” Aichele said, setting up a photo in her slideshow of members of the Cone family perched on an elephant in India. The lecturer compared the interior décor of the sisters’ Baltimore apartments to the floor display in “Benjamin Altman’s sumptuous shopping emporium on 5th Avenue” in New York.

“Their nephews — and I love these little pieces of gossip –—claim that some of their trunks crossed the Atlantic several times before they were unpacked,” Aichele said.

When Etta Cone died in 1949, she bequeathed most of the sisters’ collection — about 3,000 pieces — to the Baltimore Museum of Art. But thanks to the intercession of her sister-in-law, Laura Cone, she also left dozens of Matisse prints, along with prints and drawings by Picasso, Felix Valloton, Raoul Dufy and John Graham, to the fledgling Weatherspoon Art Gallery at what was then Woman’s College in Greensboro.

Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore is on exhibit at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham through Feb. 10, featuring masterpieces by Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Renoir, van Gogh, Pisarro and Courbet on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art. As a complement, the Weatherspoon is showcasing pieces from its permanent collection in The Cone Sisters Collect through Feb. 17.

The companion exhibit at the Weatherspoon is relatively small and makes for a brisk but satisfying hour if your week allows only a brief respite, but can easily fill two or three hours with a more luxuriant schedule. One of the exhibit’s revelations is a tiny Picasso dry-point etching called “Les deux saltimbanques,” or “Two Acrobats.” As the caption explains, Stein brought Etta Cone with her to her portrait sitting with the then-unknown Picasso in 1905. Cone purchased the drawing for the modest sum of $2. Another is an 1894 woodcut called “A Edgar Allen Poe” by Swiss artist Felix Valloton that reflects the admiration held by the European avant garde for the American poet.

“They had such freedom,” one of the attendees marveled during the Q&A session after Aichele’s lecture, reflecting on the time spent by the sisters in buying paintings, arranging their collections and studying art.

“Oh well, that’s one of the things money can buy,” Aichele shrugged, “in addition to art.”


The Cone Sisters Collect runs through Feb. 17 at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, located at the corner of Spring Garden and Tate streets in Greensboro. Call 336.334.5770 or visit for more information.