Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel:

Bringing Matisse to America

What could be more unlikely than this tale of two unmarried sisters from a German-Jewish family in Baltimore amassing one of the major collections of modern art in America? But Etta and Claribel Cone saw the potential of young artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso when few people, or institutions, in America even knew they existed.

Etta had fallen in love with art on her first trip to Italy under the exuberant encouragement of Leo Stein, an old family friend from Baltimore. During their travels, including an arduous journey around the world in 1906, the sisters began amassing Japanese prints, antiques, textiles, and jewelry. Buying without professional advice or counsel, trusting their eyes and instincts, they soon were concentrating on the avant-garde, befriending and supporting artists, and building one of the foremost collections of Matisse’s work in the world.

For decades, their treasures remained hidden in their Baltimore apartment. Claribel died in 1929, and in 1934 Etta published a catalog of the stunning collection she would ultimately bequeath to The Baltimore Museum of Art in 1949. Only then was the amazing breadth of their vision revealed.

This touching story, fully illustrated with the work they collected – Picasso, Matisse, Vuillard, Cézanne, and Gauguin, – we can trace the contours of their lives, made more vivid by the informative and colorful paintings of the author, created especially for this book to display the world of the Cone sisters, active participants in the decades that changed art forever.

More than just the fascinating story of two sisters from Baltimore who amassed a remarkable collection of artwork by Matisse and his contemporaries, this is also the story of Matisse, Picasso, and Gertrude and Leo Stein, all of whom figure prominently. Fillion, who teaches drawing at the Baltimore Museum of Art (where the Cone sisters’ collection can be seen today), contributes paintings in the style of Matisse to illustrate the major players, their encounters, and travels. The sisters’ personalities and passions come through vividly in Fillion’s prose, while many captioned reproductions of paintings and drawings (from the Cone collection and elsewhere) both inform and point to the excitement of the art world in the early 20th century. As Claribel Cone put it, ‘I took beauty where I found it.
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

An affectionate, lively examination of the reciprocal relationship between a great artist and two great art lovers. . . . Fillion sketches her characters neatly and swiftly, following the women over the next decades as they amassed what became one of the most significant American collections of modern European art. Though this is not a beginner’s text, she folds in economical explanations of early-20th-century European art, cogently contextualizing Matisse and his contemporaries. Their account is lavishly illustrated in full color by reproductions from the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art and Matisse-inflected paintings by the author, who drew extensively on the Cone archive that is also housed at the museum. . . . This appealing work stands as both a portrait of two unconventional women and a celebration of the possibilities of arts patronage.
Kirkus Reviews

Two elderly art collectors in Baltimore wouldn’t seem like an obvious choice for a YA information book, but Fillion has crafted this unlikely story into an engaging if leisurely saga that should appeal to art lovers and late bloomers. . . . The book has been given four-star treatment by the publisher with thick, glossy paper and is illustrated with reproductions (including portraits of the Cones and the Steins) and original illustrations by the author that are strong enough to work side-by-side with those of Picasso and Matisse.
Horn Book Magazine

Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel: Bringing Matisse to America is an amazing story of two daring Jewish women who traveled to Europe and abroad from Baltimore and eventually collected some of the most seminal pieces of early modern art by such famous artists as Matisse, Picasso, and other famous artists of the turn of the century. Many reproductions of the Cone sisters’ fabulous art collection are included, as well as wonderful original illustrations by the author taken from photos of the Cone sisters during their many extensive travels abroad. Directed to a youth audience, Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel presents an amazing vista of the early development of Contemporary Western art and two unusual women who supported a select few of the artists through an exciting era.
Midwest Book Review, Children’s Bookwatch “The Art Shelf”

Beautiful reproductions of Matisse’s works appear throughout this introduction to the sisters, as well as paintings by the author in Matisse’s style based on archival photographs that show the Cones with items in their collection. What will draw older teens (and adults) to this handsome large volume, though, is the informal, detailed commentary on the artists’ works. The general discussion of impressionism and cubism is always part of the story, along with jargon-free invitations to look closely at the individual paintings and sculptures.

Art and history intertwine in the story of Claribel and Etta Cone, two sisters from Baltimore whose intellectual openness and love of art—not to mention tidy personal fortunes—brought them into contact with many pioneering minds of the early 20th century. More than mere art patrons, the sisters forged decades-long friendships with Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, Pablo Picasso, and especially Henri Matisse. The collection of art that they amassed, which includes many masterpieces of Post-impressionism as well as works from Asia and Africa (now at the Baltimore Museum of Art), liberally illustrates the gracefully designed pages of this book. So too do the author’s colorful Matisse-inspired illustrations, most of which are based on archival photographs. An art educator in Baltimore, Fillion has spent untold hours with the Cone Collection and with the voluminous correspondence and other papers of the sisters. She frequently describes a scene or situation from Claribel’s or Etta’s perspective, an effective and engaging device. In the hands of a writer less intimate with the sisters, this might feel false or presumptive, but Fillion keeps it simple and convincing. A beautiful and accessible gateway to a study of Post-impressionism, and a moving portrait of two extraordinary women.
School Library Journal

This gorgeous book by Fillion, a local artist and educator, is the next best thing to taking your kids to see the Cone Collection. Lucidly written for young readers and beautifully illustrated.
Baltimore Magazine

Art exhibitions related to the book:

  • The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde
    San Francisco MoMA (2011); Grand Palais, Paris (2011), The Met (2012)
    Catalogue: Yale
  • Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories
    The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC (2011–2012)

Susan Fillion is an artist and museum educator in Baltimore. After majoring in studio art and French at Middlebury College, she spent a year in Italy, learning Italian and studying art history. Pienza, a somewhat off-the-beaten-track town in Tuscany, became a favorite spot, eventually inspiring this bilingual tale of life and pizza in an Italian village.