Spartan Stories

Tales from the UNCG University Archives

If you live in the Piedmont Triad area, the name Cone no doubt sounds very familiar. Whether from healthcare or textiles, the Cone family has deep roots in the Greensboro area. Moses H. Cone was a successful businessman and innovator. His company became a leading supplier of denim and served Levi Strauss and Company for many decades. Cone and his wife did not have children, so they donated much of their estate to fund the private non-profit healthcare system and hospital based in Greensboro, NC.

Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, and Etta Cone sitting together at a table outdoors in Italy, 1903.
Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, and Etta Cone in Italy, 1903. (Image: The Baltimore Museum of Art: Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collection)

Etta and Claribel Cone, sisters of Moses, were two of the thirteen children of Jewish immigrants Herman and Helen Cone (Kahn prior to Herman’s decision to anglicize his name). Raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Claribel (1864-1929) was trained as a medical doctor and researcher and Etta (1870-1949) was an accomplished pianist and managed the family household.

In 1898, Etta was tasked with redecorating the family’s parlor and she purchased five paintings by American Impressionist Theodore Robinson, which began a lifetime of art collecting. The Cone sisters established a collection of Modern Art when it was not widely known in the United States. With her older sister, Dr. Claribel Cone (1864-1929), Etta amassed one of the finest collections of modern French art in the United States.

As internationally travelled socialites, Etta and Claribel were friends or acquaintences with many artists and authors, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo. It was through their relationship with the Steins that they met many artists. Etta eventually became a close friend of Matisse who would set aside paintings to show her on subsequent visits that he thought she might like.

Charcoal drawing of Etta Cone by Henri Matisse. (1931-1934)
Charcoal drawing of Etta Cone by Henri Matisse. (1931-1934) (Image: The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA)

Following World War I, Etta and Claribel traveled to Europe on an annual basis to buy art, antiques, furniture, lace, and textiles. The sisters participated in the cultural life of the cities of Europe and at home in Baltimore, where they were considered rather eccentric and bohemian due to their unconvential dress, modern tastes in art, and independence.

The majority of the Cone sisters’ art collection, about 3000 works, was eventually given to the Baltimore Art Museum (BMA). There is a second, much smaller and lesser known collection that was given to the Weatherspoon Art Museum (WAM) at UNC Greensboro. Moses Cone built a vacation home, known as Flat Top Manor, in Blowing Rock, NC, which was also near many of the Cone family’s textile mills in the south. Encouraged by her sister-in-law Laura, wife of her brother Julius and a loyal alumna of Woman’s College (now UNCG), Etta Cone left sixty-seven Matisse prints and six Matisse bronzes as well as a large number of modern prints and drawings, including works by Pablo Picasso, Felix Vallaton, Raoul Dufy and John Graham to the WAM.

A view of the front room of Claribel Cone's apartment in Baltimore, MD. 1941. Pictured is the art collection hanging on each wall along with other textiles and furniture crowded into the room.
A view of the art collection in situ in the front room of Claribel Cone’s apartment in Baltimore, MD. (1941) (Image: Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art.)

The Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) holds two collections related to the Cone sisters. The Etta Cone Letters contains a collection of correspondence mostly written by Etta Cone to her cousin, Richard Guggenheimer, between 1927 and 1935.The remaining letters are written by Richard Guggenheimer to Etta Cone or to Richard from other members of the Cone Family, dated between 1931 and 1937. Topics include Etta’s focus on building her art collection, as well as her social and business activities, travel plans, health concerns, and her support of Richard Guggenheimer’s artistic endeavors. Also in the collection are newspaper clippings and a catalog of the Cone collection at the BMA.

The second of SCUA’s collections is the Etta and Claribel Cone Papers. It includes very little correspondence and is mostly comprised of clippings of artwork from magazines or newspaper articles. Likely, these were works being considered for the collection. Both collections are open for research. A much more extensive collection of the Cone sisters’ papers is owned by the BMA.

The Cone sisters, Etta and Claribel, were rareties of their time as they were two early 20th century, independent women travelling abroad regularly to socialize with artists and authors and gather a renowned collection of Modern Art. Neither sister married or had children, so like their brother Moses, they provided for their community through opening their collection for public view by donating it to the BMA and Weatherspoon Art Museum.

Posted by Suzanne Sawyer, SCUA Staff

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