IN HER WORD-PORTRAIT "Two Women," Gertrude Stein attempted to describe the Baltimore sisters Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone. It was Stein, and Stein's family, who introduced the Cone sisters to Matisse, Picasso and modern art.

Gertrude Stein took Etta to the 1905 Paris autumn salon, where Matisse and others were scandalizing the public with their unorthodox use of vivid colors. Critics called the painters "Fauves" (wild beasts). Stein purchased Matisse's "Woman With the Hat," the most controversial painting there. Stein later said she didn't understand the reaction because to her the painting seemed "perfectly natural" -- green stripes and yellow blotches on Madame Matisse's face notwithstanding.

Also excited by the show, Etta Cone soon began to collect in earnest, accumulating a fine collection of modern art when few were buying. Etta and her older sister Claribel would eventually gather 42 oils by Matisse, 113 works by Picasso and 3,000 objects in all, including sculpture, textiles, furniture, jewelry, Japanese prints, works by American artists, antique ivories and bronzes and oriental boxes, a special passion of Claribel's.

On her death in 1949, Etta left it all to the Baltimore Museum of Art. It is now the famous Cone Collection, which has returned to Baltimore after a year and a half of traveling and storage to find itself in spruced-up galleries.

The sisters' choices were never as avant garde as Gertrude Stein's. They were inveterate shoppers with conservative tastes who nevertheless knew what they liked -- and they liked a great deal.

"On the whole I find things so much more satisfactory than people," Claribel wrote to Etta. "People are interesting but you cannot live with them as satisfactorily as with things -- things are soothing -- if they are works of art -- most people are over-stimulating."

Most important, apparently, was the question of what would look best on the walls of three small flats belonging to the spinster sisters and their brother Frederic. There in the Marlborough Apartments on Eutaw Street in Baltimore grew an assemblage of clutter worthy of the Collier Brothers -- but it was aesthetic clutter.

Tucked away in two intimate corners of the reopened Cone wing are re-creations of rooms in these apartments -- vignettes flush with such aesthetic clutter -- statues and fine bric-a-brac, oriental carpets and boxes.

This is the third time the Cone wing has been renovated. In the last incarnation, it rather resembled a musty apartment itself. But now, the windows, once hidden architecturally, are uncovered to let in natural light, and the collection hangs against sparkling white walls.

New frames on the Matisses replace the traditional, heavy gilt frames that would cast a shadow on the top of a picture, or, worse, cover up part of it. Hand wrought in brass, perfectly plain, the modern frames are physically set off from the painting. As if the painting were on the artist's easel, the edge of the canvas shows. And no glass coverings reflect or distract. While the new frames take some getting used to, for they're not "authentic," the paintings now fairly jump off the wall.

The sisters largely bought portraits. They apparently had the pick of Matisse's studio. Knowing their tastes, Matisse saved paintings for them. For the sprawling, confrontational, pink-limbed "Large Reclining Nude," he even saved them the photographs he took at each stage of the painting's evolution. (These are exhibited in the gallery, where the nude now luxuriates in her dominion over a stark white wall.)

Somehow the Cones missed out on the large flat planed orchestrations Matisse painted that ended up in the Russian collections. But their love of acquiring brought them instead his "Blue Nude." And paintings like "Purple Robe and Anemones," "The Yellow Dress" and "Interior, Flowers and Parakeets" -- where Matisse brought out the pattern on a robe or a rug and gave it the same weight as the subject -- appealed to the sisters, with their penchant for textiles of every stripe.

When Picasso needed money, Stein took Etta Cone to his studio to buy drawings. Apparently some of the purchases were picked off the floor as the artist worked. One of the most extraordinary Picasso acquisitions was his 1907 "Study for Nude with Drapery," apparently the second woman from the left in his innovative "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" produced the same year.

At the gallery, this particular watercolor will only be exhibited at the museum for the next 10 weeks or so, because of its inherent fragility. The new installation allows for 24 drawings or other works on paper to be shown at a time, in tables covered with glass, and it is the plan of the Assistant Director for Art, Brenda Richardson, that the drawings that are rotated in and out of these cases will correspond to the paintings nearest them.

Picasso's "Study for Nude with Drapery" was perhaps the most avant garde work the sisters purchased. And Etta only purchased it in the 1930s to flesh out the collection -- and perhaps also because the Steins had owned it, and Etta had an urge to buy up what they had owned.

Back when Picasso did this work, the sisters had become disenchanted with him. The cubism he was inventing was beyond them.

But that is not to say the sisters were always in agreement. According to Richardson's absorbing catalogue, "Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta": "The Steins lost confidence in Matisse by 1908; Claribel by 1927; Etta never." Claribel didn't like Renoir (she bought his work anyway) and tired of her Van Gogh, "A Pair of Boots": "It is so unlike his better (more forceful more mad style perhaps) style," she wrote to Etta.

With new gallery labels indicating which sister bought what and from whom, it's possible for a visitor to the collection to speculate about the sisters' differences in taste. It's said -- and again, largely by Gertrude Stein -- that Claribel, who was a physician, was the overpowering individualist of the two, in the way of first children, one supposes. And that Etta, who when in America ran the family household in Baltimore and looked after domestic affairs in general, was the less interesting of the two. Quoting from a wealth of family letters, the collection's catalogue hints that there may have been a sensual relationship between Etta Cone and Stein. But it was Claribel that Stein termed "a person of distinction"; Etta was "a desperate one."

It wasn't until the 1920s that the sisters began consciously building an art collection. From Baltimore, they traveled to Europe for the spring and summer. During these trips, they shopped so much they found themselves, as Etta wrote to Stein, "drowned in things."

Etta tended to follow her sister's lead, "often with a less daring selection," according to the catalogue: "Claribel would buy a van Gogh, and Etta would buy her own van Gogh shortly thereafter, or Claribel a Renoir and then Etta a Renoir." Although Etta continued to collect for 20 years after Claribel's death in 1929, the most they ever spent for a painting was in 1925, when Claribel bought a brilliant Cezanne landscape for $18,860. "Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibemus Quarry" undulates with receding and advancing squares of color, the yellow quarry in the foreground and the gray mountain misted together, both flattened and angular.

The following year, Claribel purchased Matisse's masterpiece, "Blue Nude," which is central to the collection. (Years before, Gertrude Stein's brother Leo had bought it.) Although many have suggested blue is an unlikely color for skin except for very cold models, it is an intriguing, sensuous masterpiece, the woman posed in an exquisite, lolling "S."

After her sister's death, Etta tended to take expert advice, buying what would round out the collection historically. Gauguin's majestic "Woman With Mango" was one such acquisition.

Another of her late choices was the perfectly awful "Tauromachie " by Andre Masson. This painting of a Ferdinand the Bull with other Disneyesque characters is suitable only for a child's nursery.

In the new installation, all the Matisses, both paintings and sculpture, are on view, and a third of the other paintings the sisters collected. Adjacent to the three Cone galleries, two new galleries house some of the museum's other paintings from the same period covered by the Cone Collection -- early 20th century up to World War II. They include works by Mondrian, Leger, German expressionists, Gris, Braque, Miro, Modigliani, Dufy. Because of the previous lack of space, says Museum Director Arnold Lehman, some of the paintings haven't been seen in years, and some, especially from the large surrealist collection, have never been shown here.

But above all, says Lehman, "The idea of the renovation was to make all the paintings accessible." And, although on weekends the museum is "jammed with people, on weekdays you can still be alone with a painting." Says Lehman, "That is the way to enjoy a work of art." GETTING THERE

The Baltimore Museum of Art is open 10 to 4 Tuesday through Friday; Saturday and Sunday 11 to 6; and Thursday evening, selected galleries, 6 to 10; closed Monday. Admission to the Museum is $2 for anyone over 21; free on Thursdays. Parking is free in lots on either side of the building; meter parking in front is reasonable. For more information, call 301/396-7101, or 301/396-7100 for a taped message.

For lunch or dinner, the Museum Cafe offers quite good fare, indoors or on the patio overlooking the fountainous Sculpture Garden. The cafe is open Tuesday and Wednesday 11 to 10; Thursday through Saturday 11 to 11; Sunday 11 to 8; closed Mondays.

To get to the Museum from Washington, take I-95 to Baltimore, taking the exit for downtown and I-395, and follow the frequent signs for Memorial Stadium, which is near the Museum. The Museum is just above 29th and Charles on Art Museum Drive. CONE-RELATED EVENTS THE CONE COLLECTION: A SEMINAR -- Saturday 11 to 5. Reservations required for this four-part program: The Cone Collection and the Cone Family; Paris in the 1920s and 1930s; Impressionists and Post-Impressionists; Henri Matisse. GERTRUDE STEIN: "WHEN THIS YOU SEE, REMEMBER ME" -- An 89-minute film, Sunday 1 and 4. GALLERY TALK: THE CONE CONNECTION -- Sunday at 3:30. MATISSE: A SORT OF PARADISE -- and "Matisse," two films, 30 minutes each, June 28 at 11 and 2. GALLERY TALK: WHY MATISSE WAS MODERN -- June 29 at 3:30. GALLERY TALK ON THE CONE COLLECTION -- July 13 and 27 at 2. THE MYSTERY OF PICASSO -- Film, July 16 at 3.