The Baltimore Museum of Art will shine the spotlight on itself this fall when it presents the first comprehensive exhibition to explore the 43-year friendship between collector Etta Cone and French artist Henri Matisse, whose works she collected and are now part of the museum’s vaunted Cone Collection.

Also opening this fall at the BMA will be the first U.S. exhibit in more than 35 years dedicated to the Spanish artist Juan Gris, a pioneer in the Cubist movement.

The two exhibits, announced this week, are expected to help draw visitors back to the museum, which has either been closed or operating at reduced capacity for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The relationship between Cone (1870 to 1949) and Matisse (1869 to 1954) laid the foundation for the BMA’s Matisse collection, which includes more than 1,200 paintings and works on paper.

Henri Emile Benoit Matisse worked in a wide range of media over a career that spanned six decades, and remains well known nearly 70 years after his death, primarily for his paintings. Although his subjects were traditional – nudes, figures in landscapes, portraits — his use of color and exaggerated form to express emotion made him one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, a leading figure in Modern art.  According to the BMA, it has the largest public collection of the artist’s work in the world, more than half of which was acquired and donated by Cone.

A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone, and Baltimore will include more than 160 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and illustrated books that demonstrate how Cone’s bond with the artist provided her with a sense of identity, purpose, and freedom from convention.

On view from October 3, 2021 to January 2, 2022 in the museum’s Thalheimer Galleries, the exhibition precedes the opening in December 2021 of the Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies at the BMA, designed by Quinn Evans Architects to allow for greater public and scholarly engagement with the museum’s Matisse collection.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalog that includes research on the formal, technical, and social aspects of the artistic and collecting practices of Matisse and Cone, as well as Cone’s role in bringing European modernism to the United States.

A Modern Influence is an incredible opportunity to explore the vision and work of an extraordinary female collector, who through her passion and commitment had a profound impact on Matisse’s career in the United States and shaped the BMA’s collection in ways that continue to serve public and scholarly exploration,” said Katy Rothkopf, Director of the Marder Center and Senior Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the BMA, in a statement.

“This is a little-told story that is deserving of much greater attention, and one that provides a wide range of avenues to experience and further understand the development and importance of Matisse’s practice to modernism and to the generations of artists that have followed,” Rothkopf said.

What’s unusual about the relationship between Cone and Matisse, according to museum curators, is that they became so close that Matisse began creating works of art for Cone to acquire, knowing that they would someday be displayed, or at least housed, together in a museum.

This is different from most artist-collector relationships, in which the artist creates a work of art not knowing who might buy it or where it might be displayed, or if it would be with other works he or she created. Knowing that many of his pieces likely would end up together influenced the way Matisse made art.

This is the story A Modern Influence will tell – the inner workings of an unusual and hugely successful artist-collector relationship. According to some estimates, the Cone Collection is worth $1 billion, and the Matisse holdings account for a significant part of that.

Etta’s backstory

Etta Cone first visited Matisse’s studio in January 1906, when she and he were both in their mid-30s. At the time she had been living in Paris near her friends, siblings Gertrude, Leo, and Michael Stein, and Michael’s wife, Sarah, who introduced her to the artist.

According to the museum, Cone immediately felt a kinship with Matisse and purchased two drawings during the visit, only to return several weeks later to purchase another drawing and a watercolor painting.

Shortly after that, Cone’s older sister, Claribel (1864 to 1929), also came to know Matisse. Together, the two sisters collected hundreds of his works, including paintings such as Blue Nude (1907), The Yellow Dress (1929-31) and Large Reclining Nude (1935).

Following Claribel’s death, Matisse traveled to Baltimore in 1930, and for the first time saw the impressive holdings that the Cone sisters had acquired. It is likely, scholars say, that Etta mentioned during this visit her interest in supporting the BMA, which had moved into its current location at 10 Art Museum Drive the year before. From this point on, Matisse began to create and offer Etta works with her collection and the museum in mind.

Altogether, the Cone sisters collected approximately 700 works by Matisse, with Etta bequeathing more than 600 of them to the BMA when she died.  The works formed an important portion of the much more expansive and renowned Cone Collection of modern art at the museum.

For years, scholars have debated the purchases made by both Cone sisters, with considerably more credit given to the acquisitions of major paintings by older sister Claribel. A Modern Influence will for the first time fully recognize Etta’s achievements as a collector and acknowledge her role in building the majority of the sisters’ Matisse collection, particularly the sculptures, drawings and prints.

Through a thorough examination of the letters written between Etta and Matisse, the exhibition catalog captures Etta’s collecting approach, focusing on her interest in the artistic process and the depth of her discernment and understanding of Matisse’s work and art more broadly.

“One of the most interesting facets of the intimacy between this artist and collector was the way in which, perhaps more so than for any other collector in that moment, it enabled Etta Cone to engage with Matisse’s process,” said Leslie Cozzi, the museum’s Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, in a statement.

“The exhibition brings to the fore not just the beauty of Matisse’s finished works, but the way in which his iterative process was layered into and across multiple media. Etta Cone and Matisse shared a love of gesture and the female form, expressed not only through her collection of his major paintings, but through an early and sustained interest in his printmaking and drawing practices. The exhibition begins with work on paper and ends there as well,” she said.

The works by Matisse will be presented largely in order of their acquisition date, demonstrating the development of the collection and Etta’s discerning eye. Among the major paintings in the exhibition are Interior with Dog (1934) and Purple Robe and Anemones (1937).

The exhibition will also feature a large selection of drawings by Matisse, including a number of masterpieces from the 1930s that are rarely on view due to light exposure restrictions.

Also featured are major parts of one of Etta’s most important purchases: the maquette for Matisse’s first illustrated book, the Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé (1932). Assembled by the artist and his daughter, Marguerite Duthuit, after the published book was complete, it features more than 250 objects that trace much of his process and includes preparatory drawings, prints in various states of execution, copper plates, and the final deluxe edition of the book.

The maquette hasn’t been on display at the BMA since 1989 and is considered one of the Cone Collection’s least-known treasures. A large, multi-touch digitized table will include high-resolution images of the printed version of the illustrated book, translations of Mallarmé’s poetry, and information about the historical context of the work.

The last gallery of the exhibition will feature the paintings and works on paper that Etta acquired during the final years of her life, as her collecting started to slow down.

After 1938 and the onset of World War II, she could no longer travel to Europe, but she continued to purchase works when she could, often from Matisse’s son, Pierre Matisse, who had a gallery in New York. The exhibition will end with a display of Matisse’s Jazz (1947), an illustrated book that looks forward to the paper cut-out compositions that he created at the end of his life.

“Etta Cone’s dedication to art, and to Matisse’s work, in particular, has had a profound impact on the BMA and the focused and studied ways in which the museum continues to develop its collection,” said Christopher Bedford, the BMA’s Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director, in the museum’s announcement of the exhibit.

“The forthcoming exhibition captures the exciting possibilities that can be achieved when artists, collectors, and public institutions join in a shared vision and commitment. We are delighted to present visitors with the incredible story of Etta Cone and the significant works of art that she brought to our museum, and to have this exhibition serve as a prelude to the presentations, programs, and publications that we’ll be able to create through our soon to be opened Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies.”

The Matisse works in the Cone Collection inspired the BMA to expand scholarship and public engagement with the artist’s work. In addition to the Cone bequest, the BMA over the years has added more than 500 works by the artist, including gifts from Duthuit and other members of the Matisse family and a major donation of prints by The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation in New York.

The creation of The Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies fulfills a long-term strategic goal for the BMA to present the breadth and depth of its Matisse holdings, while also supporting the development of new scholarly publications that advance ongoing discussions about modern art and Matisse’s significance.

When the center opens later this year, it will have a dedicated gallery and study room that increases opportunities for visiting scholars and the public to experience more of the collection on a regular basis.

Rothkopf and Cozzi are co-curators for A Modern InfluenceThe exhibit is supported by The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, the Richard C. von Hess Foundation, and the Robert Lehman Foundation.

Juan Gris exhibit

Juan Gris (Spanish, 1887 – 1927), Fantômas, 1915, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Fund 1976.59.1
Juan Gris (Spanish, 1887 – 1927), Fantômas, 1915, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Fund 1976.59.1

The exhibit on Juan Gris is the first U.S. exhibition in more than 35 years dedicated to the Spanish artist, a pioneer in the Cubist movement. Entitled Color and Illusion: The Still Lifes of Juan Gris, the exhibition is scheduled to open on September 12 in the museum’s May gallery and remain on view until January 9, 2022.

The BMA organized it with the Dallas Museum of Art, where it opened in March and will remain on view until July 25.

Color and Illusion will highlight the artist’s pivotal role in Cubism and his innovative approach to still life, with more than 40 paintings and collages created from 1911 to 1927, the year Gris died at age 40. The featured works capture all of the major periods of Gris’ career and show the evolution of his style.

Though Gris played a key role in the development of Cubism, his contributions have often been overshadowed by better-known artists, including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Fernand Léger. Color and Illusion, curators say, will give viewers an opportunity to reconsider his legacy while exploring his ability to create compositions that embrace both abstraction and representation.

“Juan Gris’s incredible use of and experimentation with color and form reverberate across modern and contemporary art movements,” Bedford said.

“The upcoming exhibition offers a fresh opportunity to examine a daring and deeply accomplished yet lesser-studied artist, providing new insights into the development of Cubism and the evolving narrative of art more broadly. We are delighted to collaborate with the DMA on the creation of this exhibition, and we look forward to engaging our many audiences in the brilliance of Gris’s practice.”

Born José Victoriano Carmelo Carlos González Pérez in Madrid in 1887, Juan Gris was one of the primary contributors to the development of Cubism in the early 20th century. He was championed by art dealers Daniel Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg and writer and art collector Gertrude Stein, who considered him “a perfect painter.” According to curators, his works are among the movement’s most original and inventive, building upon early Cubist precedents with compositions that are distinguished by their vibrant colors, bold patterns, and a constantly shifting approach.

The exhibition includes loans from The Museum of Modern Art in New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Telefónica Cubist Collection, and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain, among others.

The curators are Nicole R. Myers, The Barbara Thomas Lemmon Senior Curator of European Art at the Dallas museum, and Rothkopf in Baltimore. Supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, Color and Illusion is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog co-published by the two museums.

“This exhibition gives us the wonderful opportunity to highlight major works by Gris in both the BMA’s and DMA’s collections, putting them into a new context for the first time in decades,” said Rothkopf. “Seeing how Gris took the same motifs of musical instruments, playing cards, newspapers, bottles, glasses, and tabletops and used them in his still-life compositions in different and innovative ways throughout his brief but productive career is extraordinary.”

“Gris was a prodigious talent, achieving an incredible body of work in the short period he was active as an artist,” said Myers. “Just two years after he started painting, he emerged as a quintessential member of the Cubist group with a distinct style that is remarkable for its extraordinary refinement and rich color. “His great ability to grasp, adapt, and repeatedly transform the Cubist aesthetic deserves a deeper consideration not only of Gris’s production but of the role he played in shaping modern art in the first quarter of the 20th century.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.