Why Baltimore Is Poised to Become a Major Hub for Henri Matisse Fans

The Baltimore Museum of Art recently opened a research center dedicated to the French artist

room with various colorful Matisse paintings hanging on walls
The center aims to establish a "dialogue between modern and contemporary art," one curator says. Baltimore Museum of Art

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) has opened a research center focused on the work of modern art icon Henri Matisse. The $5 million, 2,500-square-foot Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies includes a dedicated exhibition space, a library and a study room.

Speaking with Hilarie M. Sheets of the Art Newspaper, museum director Christopher Bedford says, “The idea is to be a brain trust, the throbbing heart of Matisse.”

The BMA holds around 1,200 of Matisse’s paintings, sculptures and drawings. An exhibition now on view at the Maryland museum—“A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone and Baltimore”—explores how the venue came to be such a center for the French artist’s work, reports Sebastian Smee for the Washington Post.

Sinuous line framed art
 “Matisse: The Sinuous Line” focuses on the artist’s use of streamlined curving lines. Baltimore Museum of Art

Etta Cone, the art collector referenced in the show’s title, was a member of a prosperous German-Jewish family based in Baltimore. In 1906, Etta and her sister Claribel traveled to France, where they were impressed by an exhibition of work by Matisse and his artist friends, known as the Fauves, or “wild beasts.”

Katy Rothkopf, the center’s new director and a curator at the museum, says she hopes the space will attract researchers from other museums and provide a venue for new projects.

“We’ve never had a dedicated space to show Matisse—Matisse alone, Matisse with his friends, Matisse as an influence on artists working today,” Rothkopf tells the Art Newspaper.

At a time when many critics viewed Fauvist art as crude and confusing, the sisters purchased a number of Matisse’s drawings and paintings. After Claribel’s death in 1929, Etta began focusing on their shared art collection. The project “gave Etta’s life meaning and purpose, and offered freedom from convention,” Bedford tells the Post.

Henri Matisse with glasses sitting with open book resting against body
The BMA's collection of Matisse works stems largely from the collection of his friend and patron Etta Cone. Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Matisse and the Cones became friends over the years, and in 1930, the artist visited Etta in Baltimore while working on a mural commission in nearby Philadelphia. He began creating work specifically for the Cone collection, recognizing the partnership’s potential for finding an audience in the United States. Etta bequeathed 600 of Matisse’s works to the BMA upon her death in 1949, and the museum ultimately acquired 600 more, many of them from the artist’s family.

The new center, which opened on December 12, connects these works with Matisse’s correspondence and preparatory sketches, as well as old catalogs of his work, reports Mary Carole McCauley for the Baltimore Sun

Per a statement, the collection will feature many of Matisse’s masterpieces, including such works as The Yellow Dress (1929–31) and Large Reclining Nude (1935); little-known drawings; and early concept art for his first illustrated book, Poems by Stéphane Mallarmé (1932).

“This really is a coup for Baltimore,” Ellen McBreen, an art historian at Wheaton College, tells the Post. “Anyone interested in the history of modern art in the 20th century is going to come to your city.”

The center’s inaugural show of Matisse’s work, “Matisse: The Sinuous Line,” focuses on the artist’s use of streamlined curving lines in the 1909 sculpture The Serpentine, as well as other statues, drawings, etchings and lithographs.

Starting next summer, the center will host Denise Murrell, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as its first research fellow.

“Given her track record as a scholar, we hope she will delve into Matisse’s relationship to travel, in particular non-Western influences,” Bedford tells the Art Newspaper.

Financed by a $5 million gift from the Baltimore-based Ruth Carol Fund, the center features a permanent installation by painter Stanley Whitney. The work consists of brightly colored hand-blown glass panes inspired by the Matisse Chapel in France. Whitney’s watercolor and sketches are also set to go on view at the center.

“It's important for the Matisse center to be establishing that dialogue between modern and contemporary art,” BMA curator Katy Siegel tells the Art Newspaper, “especially with underrepresented artists, Black artists, women artists, whose role in modernism hasn’t been fully recognized.”