Say It in French

The unbelievably good Matisse From the Baltimore Museum of Art, which opens to the general public on Sunday at the Denver Art Museum, is the third and final exhibit in a series of blockbusters there that have showcased the School of Paris. It is, hands down, the finest of the three.

The first two shows -- Toulouse-Lautrec From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was presented a year ago, and Impressionism, on display last fall -- were rousing successes. They attracted thousands of visitors, many for the first time. Impressionism alone set an attendance record, with some 218,000 people jamming the place.

Matisse, which will run through the spring, is also predicted to be popular.

And politically speaking, the crowds thronging to the DAM throughout 1999 arrived just in time. These friends, both old and new, helped the museum pass a bond initiative last November in a landslide. The scheduling was a brilliant tactical maneuver on the part of the DAM's gifted director, Lewis Sharp, for two reasons: It made the museum a must-stop for thousands of area residents and, in doing that, pushed the fabulous 1971 Gio Ponti and James Sudler building beyond its capacity. A little hocus-pocus, and a strong case was made for expansion.

The $62.5 million in bonds will now provide funding for the construction of a freestanding wing, to be built across West 13th Avenue from the existing museum. Another $50 million will be raised by the DAM's trustees to pay for programming and maintenance of the new facility. This is a big chunk of private dough, and it will give the DAM some clout with Mayor Wellington Webb and the city council during upcoming discussions about the selection of an architect to design the new building.

For its part, Matisse comes too late to have any political significance, but the fact that the DAM brought it here anyway shows that despite all the talk about money, the museum's real bottom line is art.

The artwork in this exhibit has been culled from the Cone Collection, which is the Baltimore Museum of Art's centerpiece. In addition to the nearly seventy pieces seen in Denver, the Cone Collection includes hundreds of other Matisses, as well as works by Picasso, Cézanne and other French masters and Japanese prints and antique furniture.

The BMA allowed the Matisses to travel because the Cone Wing is currently being remodeled. Instead of casting the pieces into storage, the museum brought them to Denver and will later take them to the Birmingham Museum of Art, which has itself remodeled in preparation, before returning them next year to refitted digs back in Baltimore.

The collectors who assembled the Cone Collection were in some ways an unlikely pair. Claribel and Etta Cone were two unmarried sisters from a prominent and wealthy Jewish family who lived in Baltimore at the turn of the century. The sisters were two of the thirteen children born to Hermann and Helen Guggenheimer Cone, who had come by their fortune in the textile trade in the mid-nineteenth century and got wealthier with the passing years.

Claribel, born in 1864, and Etta, born in 1870, were raised in a privileged environment, and since their parents were progressive at a time when education for women was a debatable issue, Claribel was encouraged to become a physician. "Dr. Claribel," as she was called by her friends and family, eventually achieved international distinction for her work in the field of gynecology at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Medical School, the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in Philadelphia, and the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Years later, this medical career would provide the link to her interest in modern art by way of her friendship with Gertrude Stein, a much younger woman, who, with her brother Leo, were among the most important collectors of modern art in the twentieth century. In the 1890s, while Dr. Claribel was doing research at Johns Hopkins, she met Stein, whose family had moved to Baltimore so she could study medicine at the university. The Steins were affluent Jews in the same social circle as the Cones, and the two families lived within blocks of one another. Every day, Gertrude and Claribel rode the trolley together to the hospital. They became close friends and, it's been speculated, may even have become intimate.

Unlike Dr. Claribel, Etta didn't go to college. Instead she ran the family household and later traveled extensively in Europe -- the kind of thing polite ladies of means were expected to do if they remained unmarried, and a situation that led to her being called "Miss Etta" by one and all.

Miss Etta also became friendly with the Steins. But if it may be assumed that Dr. Claribel was romantically involved with Gertrude, it is assured in Miss Etta's case. In fact, Miss Etta saw Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude's longtime companion, as her successor, and refers to her as such in correspondence preserved in the Cone Collection's archive.