Outlandish Women

Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, and Etta Cone, Settignano/Fiesole, Italy, June 26, 1930. BMA Cone Archives

Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, and Etta Cone, Settignano/Fiesole, Italy, June 26, 1930. BMA Cone Archives

In the days when Americans traveled to Paris in search of the things that only Paris could offer, the artist Henri Matisse met the Cone sisters.  It probably saved his career, and perhaps even, his life.

Matisse was not well-liked. At least not in 1905 when the modern art exhibit Salon d’Automne descended upon Paris, leaving the art critics in shock. It was the advent of the brief period of art known as Fauvism. Fauve, translated: wild beast. Among the jarring, dissonant pieces on display were several works by Matisse, including the multicolored Woman with a Hat.

At the exhibit that day was the wealthy Baltimore-bred physician Dr. Claribel Cone, accompanied by her younger sister Etta. The sisters, ages 41 and 34 at the time, were spending an extended vacation in France with noted American expats, writer Gertrude Stein and her art guru brother Leo. Later in the day, Claribel pulled out her journal and penned her thoughts about the exhibit:

“We asked ourselves are these things to be taken seriously. As we looked across the room we found our friends earnestly contemplating a canvas–the canvas of a woman with a hat tilted jauntily at an angle on the top of her head–the drawing crude, the color bizarre.”

The establishment certainly didn’t take them seriously. Art critics of the day dismissed Matisse and his contemporary André Derain as “wild beasts,” who took little concern for artistic form, color, and propriety. But for the Cone sisters, despite their initial astonishment, curiosity had taken over.

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