Could serious artists survive without the National Endowment for the Arts? Could Americans tell what constitutes worth-while art? There are enough American club rooms hung with pictures of poker-playing puppies and doe-eyed waifs to suggest that the answer is no.

But there's a collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art that tells a different story. It's a lively gathering of early twentieth-century work that includes a good number of Matisses and Picassos as well as a Gauguin. And it was assembled, long before the NEA, by an eccentric pair of Baltimore spinsters named Etta and Claribel Cone. The Cone sisters prove that an American of means can -- without the help of the professional connoisseurs and a government-financed art establishment -- identify and support the first-rate art of their own time.

The art historian Mary Gabriel first encountered the Cone collection as an art student, when she went to view the tiny room, "no bigger than a large closet," in which the paintings were exhibited. And in her recent volume, The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone, she sets out to explain what motivated these women to collect art that was as controversial in their day as Robert Mapplethorpe's photography has been in ours.

The Cone sisters were no libertines living the raucous life of bohemian expatriates in 1920s Paris. As Gabriel discovered, they were instead straitlaced spinsters. "Why," the author asks, "did two seemingly severe, upright women, who clung to the cloak of Victorianism in their dress and attitude, surround themselves with avant-garde and largely erotic art?"

Gabriel doesn't entirely succeed in finding and answer, and in the end, the reader is left with the sense that the Cone sisters are laughing at the attempt to explain their motivations -- perhaps with lace handkerchiefs daintily covering their mouths.

What stands in the way of understanding these ladies is a certain bias -- our own, as well as Gabriel's. We have trouble believing that it may have been exactly their old-fashioned ways that made them such imaginative collectors. Their moral and cultural rootedness may have been what gave them the imaginitive freedom that "free spirits" often fail to achieve. Never thinking it was their lot to overturn the art world placed them in an excellent position to support those who did.

The Cone sisters were born in the late 1800s, two of thirteen children -- the offspring of a Jewish merchant living in Tennessee. Even though their East Tennessee neighbors were Union supporters, their father had been sympathetic to the South during the Civil War, and eventually he relocated to the "border town" of Baltimore. The family prospered; the Cone store became the Cone Export and Commission Company, a selling and financing agent for forty-seven southern cotton mills -- a business that provided a comfortable income for Etta and Claribel throughout their lives.

From these wealthy but unexceptional circumstances, the sisters grew into quiet mavericks. Claribel attended a woman's medical college, where one of her fellow students was Gertrude Stein, who had come to Baltimore to live with relatives after her parents' death. Stein and her brother Leo were to become influential friends of the Cone sisters.

Claribel Cone arranged for Stein to address a Baltimore women's group in 1900. The topic was "The Value of a College Education for Women," and Stein implored women not to waste their early years learning the "mysteries of self-adornment." The Cone sisters took the lesson to heart: When family responsibilities (in the case of Etta) and college (in the case of Claribel) no longer detained them, they used their freedom to pursue lives of culture.

Etta took her first trip abroad in 1901, visiting Florence, where she started to learn about art from the Steins. Gabriel hints, in fact, that Etta had a crush on Leo Stein. It was Leo who told Etta, "Keep your eye on the object and let your ideas play about it." At this point in her life, however, Etta's views mostly mirrored those of the more sophisticated Steins. Her diffidence, however, soon "began to change . . . as she became more acquainted with art."

The Steins first led the Cone sisters into collecting art. Gertrude, having "discovered" Picasso and Matisse, invited Etta to their dilapidated Paris studios. Whether Etta began buying the artists' works out of a genuine appreciation for their mastery or from a sense of "romantic charity" is unclear. But her forays into art turned into a lifelong project with its own momentum quite separate from the Steins. Nor was it charity that eventually made Etta a great collector; rather she developed an affinity for art that became a great and dominating passion.

In retrospect, it's easy to underestimate how daring it was to patronize the likes of Matisse and Picasso. But when the Cones bought their paintings and drawings, their works had no market and the artists themselves were bitterly denounced by both art professionals and the public at large. The French critic Marcel Nicolle said of Matisse: "What is presented to us here -- apart from the materials employed -- has nothing whatever to do with painting."

These criticisms were echoed in America. Of a Matisse sculpture, a New York critic wrote: "It is hard to be patient with these impossible travesties in the human form. . . . Indeed it is unbelievable that some men can justify these on any possible grounds." Another New York critic declared: "They are coarse. . . . They are narrow. . . . To us they are revolting in their inhumanity." Not even American artists welcomed Matisse. John Singer Sargent said his paintings were "worthless." In 1912, the portrait painter Howard Cushing dissuaded Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney from purchasing a Matisse sculpture (a piece the Cone sisters later bought).

Imagine favoring an artist whose name was featured in graffiti scrawled on the urinals of Montmartre: "Matisse has done more harm in a year than an epidemic! Matisse causes insanity!" Yet the Cone sisters continued to collect his work, undeterred by public and private derision of his artistic vision.

Such independence of mind sometimes led the Cone sisters to overestimate other outsiders. Like her father, the Tennessee Jewish Confederate sympathizer, Claribel Cone rooted for the losing side in the First World War. During an annual shopping spree in Europe during the war, she was briefly trapped in Germany. But otherwise, the sisters enjoyed incredible freedom on their trips abroad. The European art scene was their personal shopping mall: The Cones filled their shopping bags with paintings and sculptures to decorate their Eutaw Place apartment back home.

By the early 1920s, the sisters had broken free from the Steins' influence and begun selecting works on their own. But they never strayed far from the artists who had originally captivated them. They even continued to buy from the Stein collection when Gertrude and Leo needed money, but the sisters had come to occupy their own positions as art collectors.

The Steins do not come off so well in Gabriel's The Art of Acquiring. Gertrude sometimes seems little more than a cash- and fame-hungry dilettante willing to exploit loving friends for her own comfort. In Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, for example, she dismisses Etta as a "provincial simpleton" -- shabby treatment of the woman who at one time helped type her manuscripts and was always available when Gertrude needed cash.

In reality, Etta was shrewd individual who enjoyed life on her own terms. Her joys were few but deep: buying art, a Baltimore pied-a-terre, and the thrill of being known by the likes of Henri Matisse. Pretty good for a little-known spinster from Baltimore. Gabriel reports that when Etta told Matisse that she had "made him," he replied, that, no, he had "made her."

With no survivors, the Cones decided to leave their massive collection of 149 paintings, 97 drawings, 54 sculptures, 114 prints, and three illustrated books to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Claribel died in 1929, and by the time of Etta's death in 1949, the collection was estimated to be worth $ 3 million. Pinkerton guards were stationed outside the Cone apartments while assessors examined its pieces. The collection is valued today at half a billion dollars.

The story of the Cone sisters is, in its way, quite important. Before the National Endowment for the Arts, people like Claribel and Etta Cone collected great art, providing both cash and cachet to artists who desperately needed them.

Their story also proves that it doesn't take an avant-garde personality to appreciate the avant garde.


The Art of Acquiring A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone

Bancroft, 260 pp., $ 29.95

Libby Sternberg is a freelance writer in Rutland, Vermont, and a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio.

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