Virtual Tour: Cone Sisters' Apartments

Virtual Tour

Etta and Claribel Cone were two sisters who, over a period of 30 years, amassed one of the world’s most acclaimed collections of early 20th century French art. This “Cone Collection,” with its incomparable holdings of work by Henri Matisse and major examples of Picasso, Cezanne, van Gogh, and Renoir, was donated to The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) along with most of the sisters’ possessions and furniture in 1950. During their lives, however, the Cone sisters lived with, and displayed their collection in their apartments. They were passionate about collecting, and their apartments were full of paintings, drawings, and sculptures.

This project, first installed in 2001, meticulously reconstructs the early 20th century apartments as they were and gives a glimpse of how the sisters incorporated their collection into their everyday life. This virtual rendition of these original apartments allows viewers to “walk-through” the collection as the Cone sisters did daily. Certain objects such as a cabinet in Claribel’s Print Room, a grouping of travel books, and letters from Matisse may be opened and their contents revealed.


Reconstructing the Cone sisters’ apartments was difficult, because there are few remaining records of the original building. After locating floor plans of the original apartments, the IRC started the complex process of creating a computer-generated, real-time, 3-D reconstruction of the apartments, building wall by wall and room by room. Using measurements taken of the existing building, the IRC was able to accurately place 34 of the 37 existing photographs from the 1930s and 40s that document the Cone sisters’ apartments. Each of 600+ objects and artwork has been painstakingly modeled and textured to appear three-dimensional in the virtual home of the Cone sisters.

Spatialized audio is also used to represent the apartments. In one room where the sisters hung a group of Matisse drawings in tribute to their friendship with Gertrude Stein, an excerpt of Stein’s “cubist” essay of the two sisters, entitled “Two Women” is heard.

*Excerpt from BBC Documentary hosted by Michael Palin, "Palin and the Ladies Who Loved Matisse"

Navigation and Installation

The Virtual Tour of the Cone Sisters’ Apartments is presented at the Baltimore Museum of Art as a real time interactive simulation. Viewers navigate through the corridors and rooms of the Cone Sisters’ apartments, immersed in the environment in which the sisters exhibited their extensive collection of then contemporary masterworks. Two versions were developed simultaneously.

First, a touch plasma screen version was developed for permanent display in the Cone Wing of the Museum. Viewers explore and move about the apartments by intuitively touching objects, doors, and artworks. In some instances, certain pieces of furniture can be opened and their contents explored. An interactive floorplan of the building is available as a means to quickly move to a specific room, and a 3D view of early 20th century Baltimore helps viewers situate the model with time and place.

A second version was developed to give viewers an immersive experience and was installed at the Museum for two weeks in April of 2001. Driven by multiple CPUs networked together, the apartments are presented on a large rear-screen multiple projection screen in polarized passive stereoscopic vision. Gallery visitors navigated through the apartments by using a joy-stick fashioned after a door knob from the original apartments

In 2010 the IRC to upgraded the tour to take advantage of new technologies and discoveries about the Cone Collection. Part of the process was upgrading all of the models and textures to take into account the increased capabilities of late model graphics cards. This included remodeling all of the frames and many of the sculptures present in the first and second iterations of the interactive. With increased graphics memory available, each frame and sculpture could be constructed with a higher degree of detail in its polygonal mesh and texturing. Sculptures that were initially two-dimensional representations were scanned in three dimensions to become full polygonal models. Interns utilized laser scan decimation software to reduce each sculpture to a resolution fit for real-time display, with custom shaders being written by the IRC Interactive Programmer Shane Lynch.

Touring Exhibition

In the fall of 2010, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) organized a traveling exhibition of their Cone Collection to both The Jewish Museum in New York and the Vancouver Art Gallery. Once again, the IRC collaborated with the BMA to develop a version of the Cone Virtual Tour that could easily be transported and maintained. This posed a unique set of technical problems, such as writing scripts for automated logins and enabling scheduled power cycling to coincide with the opening and closing times of different venues. Dependable functionality was a key goal, and extensive documentation was written to help those unfamiliar with the project easily configure and troubleshoot the system off site. The first of the two shows was a success, as the Cone Virtual Tour entered its 11th year as a fixture in the BMA’s permanent collection.


Production Notes

Imaging Research Center
Project Directors: Alan Price, Dan Bailey
Technical Director: Eric Smallwood
Programming: Alan Price, Shane Lynch
Scene Layout, Modeling and Texturing: Brinton Jaecks
Lead Modeling and Checking: Ethan Berner
3D Scan Reduction: Alex Ehrensberger, Tyler Chase
Archival Research: Mina Cheon
Digital Photography Coordinator: Meg Flynn
Image and Data Management: Sala Wong
Computer Systems Assistance: Steve Brown, Tim Craig
Modeling and Texturing: Zena Al-Dellmey, Agnes Asplund, Leslie Bristow, Ryan Craun, Ivy Flores, Carl Gehrman, Charles Hudson, Adam Levine, Mark Levy, Jason Lubawski, Laurie Lutz, Dan Marsh, Christos Palios, Shawn Stringfield, Shelley Taylor, Gideon Webster, Megan Willy, Chris Wood

Baltimore Museum of Art
Project Directors: Jay Fisher, Allison Perkins, Katy Rothkopf, Anne Manning
European Painting and Sculpture: Oliver Shell, Randall Vega
Decorative Arts: Catherine Thomas, James Abbott, Anita Jones, Dee Dee Taylor
Registrars: Melanie Harwood, L. Carol Murray, Michael Klunk, Frances Klapthor
Library and Archives: Linda Tompkins-Baldwin
Design and Installation: Karen Neilson, Cliff Dossel Ben Hatcher, Victoria Kaak
Information Technology: Jeff La Clair
Photography: Jose Sanchez, Mitro Hood
Rights and Reproductions: Nancy Press, Brianna Bedigian