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Art Where You're At

How Pioneering Museum Director Adelyn Breeskin Helped 'People To See'

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Adelyn Dohme Breeskin studio portrait, 1961 Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Photo by Leonard L. Grief, Jr.

Adelyn Dohme Breeskin studio portrait, 1961 Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

That's Adelyn Breeskin's nude. Well, actually it's Matisse's. He painted it for a rich collector in Baltimore. The collector bequeathed it to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Breeskin (the staff called her "Mrs. B") was museum director. Thanks to the director's wooing of the rich lady, the BMA ended up with the most Matisse's in any public institution in the world!

Not only did Breeskin get Baltimore the Matisse nude up top, among a total of some 730 Matisses, she got this one, too.

I like the top one better, and so did Etta Cone, the rich Matisse fan. She and Matisse had become friends thanks to an introduction in Paris by a relative of writer Gertrude Stein. (This story of the webs of artistic genius, passionate collecting, money and the right relationships is how lots of masterpieces end up on the walls of museums.)

Etta and her sister, Dr. Claribel Cone, started collecting early 20th century French art in the 1920s. In addition to Matisse the unmarried sisters bought Picasso, Cézanne, Gauguin. When Claribel died in 1929, she left the collection to Etta, having said that once, "the spirit of appreciation for modern art became improved" in their hometown of Baltimore (ouch) the works should go to the BMA. Worse, the director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, competing fiercely for the works, reportedly said they were, "far too good for Baltimore." Listen, Alfred Barr, you should know that Baltimore has come to be called Charm City.

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Anyway, Baltimore beat out MoMA, and Adelyn Breeskin had a lot to do with it. The current BMA exhibition, "Adelyn Breeskin: Curating a Legacy" demonstrates her talent for acquiring.

Wouldn't you give this woman your masterpieces? That's her, 20 years into leading the BMA. Determined. Elegant. "A real lady," says curator Laura Albans. Former curator, Diana Jacquot, thinks Breeskin's work ethic — growing the museum, courting donors — was unparalleled. "Worked seven days a week, and had to put on her gloves and be sociable, too." The first woman to head a major metropolitan museum — made major when she snared the Cone Collection.

Which included this fabulous Cézanne:

And this fabulous van Gogh:

But it's the Matisse's that... seduce, I want to say... my eye. I love the wooing (or lobbying, or cultivation, or massaging) of Matisse and Etta and Adelyn, that brought the works to Baltimore.

In 1930, Matisse traveled from France to the U.S., and stopped in Baltimore to see his patron, pen pal and friend, Etta Cone. Her sister, Claribel, died in 1929, and the artist paid a condolence call. He visited Etta at her apartment on Eutaw Place, and saw what the sisters had been collecting.

Back in France, he painted Purple Robe.

"We really think he made it for Etta" says curator and Matisse expert Katy Rothkopf. "It's a piece that sums up everything she loved about his work. It's just a splendid voluptuous painting that she just could not have resisted." The master knew his audience. Etta bought it in 1938, right after it was made — hot off the easel, you might say if you battled discretion. Her timing was perfect. World War II was looming. She couldn't have gone to France.

Large Reclining Nude is another example of the Matisse-Etta connection, and a fine glimpse of the business savvy of Monsieur Matisse.

It took him months to paint. He documented his progress with a series of photographs taken at various (22 in fact!) stages of creation. The pictures show him scraping the paint off some canvases — removing features on her face — putting them back, making change after change, "until he got what he wanted," says Rothkopf. And he sent all the photos to his devoted patron Etta. Only to Etta. The pictures show something else fascinating. With pieces of paper, he cut out shapes of the nude, and pinned them onto his canvas, to see the best placement for her. You can see the tiny pinholes to this day, on the canvas.

And none of these stories and glories would have ended up at the Baltimore Museum of Art, if Adelyn Breeskin hadn't been there, keeping in touch with Etta, putting on shows with parts of their collection, bringing bouquets of nasturtiums and violets to the sisters. "I knew it was my main job," Breeskin told an interviewer," to see that it [the Cone collection] came to us." In 1979 on NPR, she told how she got it.

"I became a very good friend of Etta Cone ..." Breeskin says in this 1979 NPR story (it's fun to listen to her carefully frank, monied voice). "And saw a great deal of her." Then reporter Wendy Blair observes, "There's a certain amount of ego stroking." To which Breeskin replies: "There is indeed!"

But (alas, there's always a but), Breeskin went after one "get" that she didn't get. She was the No. 1 expert in the world on American painter Mary Cassatt. For years, Breeskin tried to get this Cassatt for BMA's permanent collection:

Breeskin tried to convince Etta Cone to buy the Cassatt. Etta wasn't interested. "Breeskin did not give up," says curator Albans. "She was ingenious and unstoppable." She went to Baltimore's Peabody Institute, asked them to buy it, and put it on long-term loan to BMA. "So that painting has been on loan since 1922." Even after Breeskin retired in 1962, she kept asking if Peabody would sell it!

"Relentless. Relentless."

That's what it took. Persistence. Ambition. Vision. "It's uphill work," Breeskin said. "But it's so exciting to try to create enthusiasm, and to help people to see."

Art Where You're At is an informal series showcasing online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.

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