There were two of them, they were sisters, they were large women, they were rich, they were very different one from the other one . . . -- From "Two Women" by Gertrude Stein

BALTIMORE -- They were the Cone sisters from Baltimore, they were Claribel, the doctor, and her younger sister, Etta, they were mannish and eccentric, but never too eccentric, they were spinsters all their lives. Claribel, the loner, was the competent professional, the admired one, the dominant. Etta, six years younger, was the housekeeper, the helpmate, the often overlooked. They were devoted friends of Gertrude Stein, one might almost say apostles. Claribel and Gertrude Stein (who also studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University) were individualists together in 1890s Baltimore. Gertrude Stein and Etta probably were lovers. It was under Stein's strong tutelage that the sisters forged their rich but oddly mixed collection of early 20th-century art.

They bought 113 pictures, works on paper most of them, from Stein's young friend Picasso -- who all his life remembered them as "the Miss Etta Cones." They were even more devoted to Henri Matisse, and eventually acquired more than 40 of his oils, 18 of his sculptures, 36 drawings and 155 of his prints. They bought a fine Tahitian Gauguin and one of the grandest landscapes painted by Ce'zanne. Insatiably acquisitive, they bought figurines and necklaces, embroideries and laces; they could not get enough. "We are being drowned in things," Etta wrote to Gertrude Stein in 1922. The Cones crowded the dark rooms of their Baltimore apartment with Persian rugs, Kashmiri shawls, Moroccan brass and Polish silks, and there, amid the clutter, they placed their little pictures by Degas, van Gogh, Courbet, Braque, Renoir, Seurat.

In 1929, when Claribel died at 64, Etta turned her sister's rooms into a sort of shrine. Nothing could be moved. Claribel's old steamer trunks, packed as if in readiness for yet another trip to Europe, remained where she had left them. The vases by her bedside received fresh flowers every day.

Of course, art suitors came. They came from Harvard's Fogg, from the National Gallery in Washington, from theCleveland and the Boston, the Philadelphia Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. Alfred H. Barr Jr., insisting the collection was far too good for Baltimore, came to plead the case for the Museum of Modern Art. Etta promised nothing. When she died in 1949 she left the whole collection, with its draperies and carpets, marbles, books and bric-a-brac -- and its 600 modern pictures -- to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Tomorrow, after 18 months of expansion and renovation -- and the expenditure of $1,975,000 -- the Baltimore Museum's Cone Wing goes on public view again.

To commemorate the opening the museum has just published "Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta," a remarkable biography both delicate and candid by assistant director Brenda Richardson, who also did the hanging. Had Richardson selected just their finest pictures -- say "La Coiffure" by Picasso and his strong Blue Period portrait, the best of their Matisses, the great "Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibe'mus Quarry" by Ce'zanne, the Degas, the van Gogh and the Gauguin -- the Cone sisters of Baltimore would seem farsighted prophets. But Richardson's fine volume, and her broad-gauged installation, portrays them as they were, deficiencies and all.

They werecertainly far bolder than most Victorian ladies. But not bold enough. Despite their recognition of Picasso and Matisse, they rarely bought the best. Time and again they faltered at the brink.

They bought their first Picassos in November 1905 and their first Matisses two months later. By the end of 1906 the sisters had acquired 18 more Picassos (11 drawings, seven etchings), a "Bathers" by Ce'zanne, two etchings by Manet and three more Matisses.

But then they stopped collecting. They did not buy again in earnest until 1922.

The weakest works they purchased are not on exhibition, but still one cannot help but wince at their hesitations -- and at their sometimes tawdry taste. One painting on display, "Washerwomen" (1888), a Renoir bought by Etta in 1928, is so oversweet that it makes your teeth ache. And yet when Etta Cone spoke of the collection she insisted that the Renoir was her favorite "non-Matisse."

Attracted to the saccharine, she was suspicious of the harsh. When Picasso moved toward cubism, both Cone sisters dropped him. Etta, it is true, bought one superb study for his "Nude With Drapery," the huge precubist masterpiece acquired by the Hermitage, on view (until tomorrow) in the Russian exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. One cannot help suspect that she didn't really like it, that she bought it rather in homage to her mentor: for the study (and the oil, too) were once in Gertrude Stein's collection.

Even when she bought Matisse, the painter she admired most, she did so without daring. If you knew that master only from his oils at the Cone Wing (there are 37 in one room there), you would never guess at the audacity and scale of his grandest works. Nothing here compares with "Harmony in Red" or with "The Conversation," those extraordinary pictures, both bought by Sergei Shchukin, still on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art.

"Matisse's work," writes Richardson, "evolved along alternate lines of inquiry, between periods of experimentation and dramatic formal invention, and periods in which the work reverts to the traditional. It is, of course, that more advanced work by which Matisse is defined by today's critical standards -- the great decorations of 1909-1910, the extraordinary achievements of 1912-1919 with their structural abstraction, and the sublime . . . cutouts of the late 1930s and 1940s. Despite Etta's loyalty to the artist throughout her lifetime, she bought from none of these more advanced bodies of work. The Cone Collection represents Matisse at his most conservative and traditional and within a range of subject matter that is fundamentally decorous . . . "

With Matisse, as with Picasso, there is one great exception, the "Blue Nude" of 1907. Richardson describes that "savage" picture as the Cone Collection's "keystone." When Claribel acquired it in 1926 (at the auction held to disperse the collection of John Quinn), she too must have been thinking of its provenance. The "Blue Nude" was the last Matisse bought by Leo and Gertrude Stein.

Paul and Ailsa Mellon, the Wideners and the Kresses, Ivan Morozov and Shchukin, competent collectors often come in pairs. Sometimes they collaborate. Washington's Duncan Phillips liked to pick his pictures with Marjorie, his wife. Sometimes they compete. Gertrude Stein and Leo Stein did both.

When first they went to Paris (she arrived in 1904 and stayed for 30 years), they bought their pictures jointly, often in accordance with Leo's strong conviction that "Manet, Renoir, Degas and Ce'zanne" ranked as "the Big Four." Later, especially after Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude's intimate companion, moved into their apartment on the Rue de Fleurus, they began to disagree. When, in 1913, Leo Stein moved out, they divided their collection, Leo taking with him the Renoirs and Matisses, leaving to his sister their Picassos and Ce'zannes.

As modern art advanced, Leo Stein recoiled. "Damn Ce'zanne," he wrote. "For a while, no painter excited my interest more vitally. Now no pictures interest me less." He found cubism unacceptable, "tommyrot," he called it. No such doubts about the new disturbed Gertrude Stein.

How much her deep commitment to her friend Alice Toklas influenced her painful schism with her brother is a matter of conjecture. Similar speculations -- about jealousy, obedience and homosexual love -- surround Etta Cone.

Reading Richardson's biography, one is often tempted to psychoanalyze the players, though Richardson refrains. It is true that Claribel and Etta grew up in the thrall of a domineering male, their imposing brother Moses. (Moses, born in 1857, was the first of 13 children and eventually took over the family's prosperous cotton mills. Claribel, the fifth child, was born in 1864; Etta was the ninth.) Once asked, by a niece, why she never married, Etta said it was "because I never met a man who was the equal of Brother Moses."

Unlike independent Claribel, who often lived alone, Etta seemed to crave female companionship. "Between 1913 and 1926," writes Richardson, "Etta shared much of her time with Nora Kaufman, including nine trips together to Europe. Kaufman was initially employed by Etta as a private duty nurse, but their relationship quickly blossomed into a close friendship . . . When they traveled with Claribel, Etta and Nora shared a double room and Claribel took an adjoining single room (hotel room numbers are carefully annotated in Claribel's account books of the 1920s, always indicating which room was occupied by 'Etta and Miss K')."

There is evidence as well for some sort of romance between Etta and Gertrude Stein. "Has my successor [Alice B. Toklas] done her duty by my place what she usurped?" Etta asked Gertrude in a 1907 letter. "I am sometimes envious, but guess I am greedy." The next year she confessed a crush on Ida Gutman. "Ida," she wrote Gertrude, "is still my pet adoration, & my heart still beats hot when her letters come."

Yet, as Richardson warns rightly, it is easy to misread such clues. "Such relationships were sometimes sexual and sometimes not, but in either case they seem to have been of an emotional intensity and subtlety more accepted among women of the nineteenth century than of the present."

Moses' death in 1908 threw Etta into shock. She suffered from chronic insomnia and addiction to Veronal, and wrote to Gertrude that her brother's death was "the most terrible trial that has come into my life."

When Gertrude wrote to Etta to shake her from her grief, Etta turned against her friend. "You have simply shocked me with your unfair outburst . . . Honestly, Gertrude, you cannot possibly know how unhappy I am & you could not have realized how I adored, almost worshipped my brother . . . Please never write me such a letter again."

Their friendship cooled thereafter. Etta also knew how to inflict pain. Frequently the Steins turned to the Cones for money, often selling them pictures at considerable profits. In 1924, Gertrude, short of cash, suggested Etta purchase the manuscript of her "Three Lives" for $1,000. Etta not only declined, but did so by explaining "that I am seriously considering putting all I can spare of what I have left of my income into a Renoir."

"She must have known by then what Gertrude thought of Renoir," Richardson says. "Talk about revenge."

In their lives, as in their art collecting, Claribel and Etta Cone were creatures of two worlds. Etta, in particular, as Richardson observes, was challenged all her life "by internal conflicts between propriety and eccentricity." Both sisters, though attracted to the avant-garde, never quite succumbed. Though they often stayed in Paris at the Hotel Lutetia, they, unlike Gertrude Stein, showed no interest in the experimental writers (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound) who were their fellow guests. The Cones were witnesses, not pioneers. "They followed with enthusiasm," writes Richardson, "but they were never able to lead with the daring of pure vision."

They bought to decorate their home. "Ever since I was a small girl and picked up all the shells I could find, reveling in their color and in their forms, I've been acquiring beautiful things," Claribel explained in 1928, and she always seemed to find a shell or an embroidery as desirable, as pleasing, as a painting by Matisse.

Etta's taste was even less adventurous. She liked flower pictures, undemanding landscapes and scenes of pretty women musing in interiors. "Her personal taste," writes Richardson, "was narrowly circumscribed by her essentially Victorian upbringing and forever constrained by her capacity to embrace anything beyond relatively realistic figure and landscape subjects. It is clear Etta knew who the moderns were: it is equally clear that she did not fully grasp what was modern about their work."

"The Cones," Richardson says, "built a great collection -- but it could have been far greater. Something held them back, something prevented them from being, well, from being Gertrude Stein. Stein didn't give a damn. The Cones were always conscious of what other people thought."