Cone Sisters

Maryland State Archives
350 Rowe Boulevard
Annapolis, MD 21401

Phone: (410) 260-6400


The Cone sisters’ legacy to Baltimore and to the art world at-large is that they were witnesses to an incredibly vibrant period in modern art and literature.  Their affluence, education, and sociability allowed them to intermingle with Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, thus giving them an opportune vantage point from which to compile a premier art collection.

Born to Herman and Helen Cone, both German-Jewish immigrants, Claribel (November 14, 1864-September 20, 1929) and younger sister Etta (November 30, 1870-August 31, 1949) moved with the family to Baltimore in 1871.  The family’s wholesale grocery would soon be re-named H. Cone and Sons as it prospered.  Meanwhile, the eldest Cone brothers had relocated to Greensboro North Carolina to establish a textile business named Proximity Manufacturing Co. (now known as Cone Mills Corp.).

Both sisters graduated from Western Female High School. Whereas Etta was comfortable managing the family household, Claribel pursued a medical degree.  First studying at the Woman’s Medical College of Baltimore from which she would graduate in 1890, Claribel would continue her education at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School.  Although she never practiced medicine, Dr. Cone taught pathology and continued to study with researchers throughout Europe over the next two decades.

The Cone sisters owed much of their initial forays into the art world to their friendship with Gertrude and Leo Stein.  After being orphaned, the Stein siblings moved to Baltimore to live with an aunt and soon became part of the Cone’s social crowd.  Gertrude Stein studied at the Women’s Medical College during Claribel’s professional tenure. Despite the age difference, these unconventional women were drawn to one another by their love of conversation and music, while demure Etta was beguiled by Gertrude’s Bohemian lifestyle.

Inheritances from their parents allowed the Cone sisters to live comfortably; profits from their brothers’ mills during World War I would increase their fortunes considerably. It was Etta who first purchased artwork. In 1898, she began her collection with five paintings by Theodore Robinson.  Etta would continue to acquire art sporadically.  While on a European holiday and visiting the Stein’s in Paris, the younger sister was introduced to Picasso and then to Matisse. This initial encounter with Matisse would lead to a lifetime patronage.  Much of Etta’s purchases were inspired by ‘romantic charity’ rather than a true desire to compile a collection of work.  She would make small acquisitions to help up-and-coming arts like Matisse, Picasso, and even students at the Maryland Institute, College of Art; she would buy from the collection of the financially strapped Stein’s.  Her tastes tended toward the conservative; more frequently than not, she bought portraits to decorate her home.

Contrary to Etta, Dr. Claribel purchased much more avant-garde works.  She was responsible for the addition of Matisse’s Blue Nude and Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen From the Bibemus Quarry to their collection.  Whereas Etta might pay 10000 francs for a painting or a group of drawings, Claribel was much more bold in her purchases; the aforementioned paintings costing 120,760 and 410,000 francs respectively.  But like her younger sister, building a collection was not the focus from the acquisition.  Instead, the sisters covered every wall space of their apartments in the Marlborough building in Baltimore with their purchases. 

It wasn’t until Claribel’s untimely death from pneumonia that Etta sought advice and used brokers to add to the personal collection. Upon her death, Claribel willed her paintings to Etta stipulating that the work should eventually be given to the Baltimore Museum of Art "if the spirit of appreciation of modern art in Baltimore should improve." Etta would continue her patronage of Matisse, while not necessarily purchasing from his less-conservative periods.  For instance, she never acquired one of his paper cut-outs.  Over the next two decades, Etta made shrewd purchases to fill gaps in the collection.

Upon Etta’s death in 1949, despite overtures by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Cone Collection was donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art. It contains over 3000 works, 500 of which are by Matisse. The estimated value is one billion dollars.

The Cone sister’s legacy is not one of radical feminism as was Gertrude Stein’s. Claribel and Etta remained unmarried, as did 10% of women during this time period. They traveled extensively within the company of other women as was customary within their social sphere.  However, Claribel’s pursuit of a medical degree was at the forefront of the profession.  And their use of the family’s prosperity to observe and collect art documenting the dynamism of post-World War I Europe was unparalleled among other women.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12: 

Era 6 The Development of the Industrial United States

STANDARD 1: How the rise of corporations, heavy industry, and mechanized farming transformed the American people 

Standard 1B: The student understands the rapid growth of cities and how urban life changed.

5-12 Trace the migration of people from farm to city and their adjustment to urban life. [Appreciate historical perspectives]  

STANDARD 2: Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity. 

Standard 2A: The student understands the sources and experiences of the new immigrants

5-12 Assess the challenges, opportunities, and contributions of different immigrant groups. [Examine historical perspectives]  

Standard 2C: The student understands how new cultural movements at different social levels affected American life.

5-12 Investigate new forms of popular culture and leisure activities at different levels of American society. [Draw upon visual sources]

Primary Resources

  1. TITLE:  The Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art
    NOTE: Virtual tour of Marlborough apartment; “Collectors Extraordinaire;” “Matisse in the Cone Collection;” and  “Picasso: The Circus”
    SOURCE:  Baltimore Museum of Art
    RESPOSITORY:  Baltimore Museum of Art, Cone Archives

  2. TITLE:  Will of Dr. Claribel Cone
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: April 25, 1929 
    NOTE: serial #10225, folio #531, Book #165, Case #447, p. 61.
    SOURCE:  Baltimore City, Register of Wills
    RESPOSITORY:  Maryland State Archives

  3. TITLE:  Will of Etta Cone
    NOTE: serial #52036, folio #35, Book #233, CR 232, case #690, p.35
    SOURCE:  Baltimore City, Register of Wills
    RESPOSITORY:  Maryland State Archives

  4. TITLE:  Probate inventory of Dr. Claribel Cone
    NOTE: serial #10225, folio #315, Book #257, p. 315; shows location of paintings within Marlborough apartment
    SOURCE:  Baltimore City, Register of Wills
    RESPOSITORY:  Maryland State Archives

  5. TITLE:  Probate inventory of Etta Cone
    NOTE: serial #52036, folio #14, Book #308 and serial #52036, folio #557, Book #308; first entry shows stocks and bonds including $1.3 million of Cone Mills stock; second entry addresses bequeathment, but does not contain a specific inventory of paintings
    SOURCE:  Baltimore City, Register of Wills
    RESPOSITORY:  Maryland State Archives

  6. TITLE:  Marlborough apartment hotel
    NOTE: Z24.1515
    SOURCE:  Photo Collection – Baltimore houses
    RESPOSITORY:  Maryland Historical Society

  7. TITLE:  Dr. Claribel Cone A Remarkable Woman
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  April 8, 1911
    NOTE:  Interview with Dr. Cone available on microfilm from Enoch Pratt Library, Morgan State University, UMBC, and UMCP.
    SOURCE:  The Evening Sun (Baltimore)   

  8. TITLE: “Correspondence of Claribel and Etta Cone.”
    AUTHOR: Liza Kirwin  
    SOURCE:  Archives of American Art Journal. V. 27 No. 2(1987) p. 34.

  9. TITLE: “Sopher Recalls Patron”
    AUTHOR: Sharon Dickman  
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  April 5, 1971
    SOURCE:  Evening Sun

Additional Media Resources

Michael Palin on the Cone Sisters (Michael Palin and the Ladies Who Loved Matisse). BBC, 2002.

Cone Mills, Greensboro, North Carolina

Women's Medical College of Baltimore

Additional Instructional Resources

Resources on Incorporating Primary Sources and Historic Sites in Classroom Instruction

Matisse for Kids   

Secondary Resources

Abrahams, Harold J. Extinct Medical Schools of Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1969. 

Cone, Edward. "Shirtsleeves to Matisses.", 1999. 

Cone, Edward T. “The Miss Etta Cones, The Steins, and M’sieu Matisse: A Memoir.” The American Scholar. Summer 1973 (vol. 42, no. 3) pp.441-460. 

Cordell, Eugene F. Medical Annals of Maryland. Baltimore: Medical and Chirurgical Society of Maryland, 1903.

Gabriel, Mary. The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta & Claribel Cone. Baltimore: Bancroft Press, 2002. 

Hirschland, Ellen B. “The Cone Sisters and the Stein Family.” Four Americans in Paris: The Collections of Gertrude Stein and her Family. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1970. 

Pollack, Barbara. The Collectors: Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962. 

Richardson, Brenda and William C. Ameringer. Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta. Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1985.

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Baltimore Museum of Art
10 Art Museum Drive 
Baltimore, MD 21218-3898
410) 396-7100


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This document packet was researched and developed by Traci Siegler.

An Archives of Maryland Online Publication
© Copyright, Maryland State Archives, June 23, 2004