Matisse: A legacy of color and light

Sometimes what looks like a problem is actually the door to a new opportunity.

This is a lesson Minneapolis Institute of Arts curator Erika Holmquist-Wahl learned first hand when she was forced to cancel plans for a show of portraits by Henri Matisse from the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

“We had been planning years in advance,” explained Holmquist-Wahl. “But in May negotiations became challenging, particularly over the checklist of objects that would come on loan. When you do a show like this you want to have the highest quality works, representative of the museum’s holdings.”

The cancellation left a rather large hole in the MIA’s exhibition calendar. But as luck would have it, MIA Director Kaywin Feldman ran into Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, at a conference and learned the BMA was undergoing some major renovations. Bolger said her museum would be happy to loan its extensive collection of Matisse paintings, drawings and sculpture.

Et voilà! A new show was born.

Matisse: Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art is an exhibition founded on the Cone Collection, the acquisitions of two Baltimore sisters – Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone – who were avid art collectors and close friends with Gertrude and Leo Stein. Funded by their family’s textile business, the Cone sisters made numerous trips to Paris to see, and purchase, the latest works by Matisse, Picasso, Degas and Cezanne. The walls of their home were covered with paintings, while a Matisse sculpture adorned a dining room table.

“They tended to favor very traditional matter – still lifes, portraits, landscapes,” Holmquist-Wahl said. “But they also didn’t shy away from works that at the time would be considered scandalous. They collected odalisques – the female nudes — and other more sensual pictures.”

The Cone sisters began collecting in earnest at the end of World War I, when it was once again safe to travel to Europe. By this time Matisse was already hailed as the greatest colorist of the 20th Century, and was in the thick of what would be a lifelong rivalry/friendship with Pablo Picasso.

“Matisse took the fundamentals of everything you study in Art 101 — color, shape, form, line — and turned it sideways,” Holmquist-Wahl said. “He makes it possible for all of these elements to be looked at anew. If you can make a sky purple or draw a green line down a woman’s nose – he made that possible.”

On a visit to the United States in 1930 Matisse paid a visit to the Cone sisters in Baltimore, and was both shocked and charmed to realize how much of his work had found a home there.

“Once he saw their collection in person, and realized that their collection would eventually be given to the Baltimore Museum of Art, he began seeding their collection with pieces he viewed as his more important works, transforming it into a legacy collection,” Holmquist-Wahl said.

That legacy is on view for the public to enjoy at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through May 18.