Modern American Realism: Highlights from the Sara Roby Foundation Collection

A traveling exhibition from
the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Listen while you tour the exhibition in the Whaling Museum’s McCausland Gallery.

Nantucket is a study in contrasts. Despite its seeming uniformity of gray houses, the island has an independent, free-thinking spirit. Into this milieu came Sara Roby, a long-time Nantucket summer resident who lived on island full time towards the end of her life.

Roby was an heiress and painter who refused to be bound by current fads. Championing realism in the 1950s was a daring and defiant act. Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem De Kooning, and others dubbed abstract expressionists were the art stars of the day. Flinging and pouring paint, they created huge canvases that bore little resemblance to the natural world. Concerned that figu­rative art was being eclipsed, Roby established a foundation to collect art that reflected the classic principles of form and design she had learned as an art student, first in Philadelphia and later with Reginald Marsh and Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Art Students League in New York. Roby and her advisors recognized that the beauty and spirituality, as well as the tensions, of modern life allowed for many kinds of realism. They bought paintings by Edward Hopper and Robert Vickrey that probe the angst and psychological dislocation associated with existential thought in the 1950s. Leavening these unsettling images are canvases by Isabel Bishop and Phillip Evergood, whose empathy and sense of social responsibility had emerged during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Formed in the mid 1950s, the collection captures both the optimism and the apprehension of the years following World War II. Many of the works are poignant, others whimsical. Still others challenge us to decipher meaning imbedded in difficult, sometimes enigmatic scenes. The collection is a reflection of the multivalent realities of contemporary life, of human emotion at its most elemental and universal.

Cape Cod Morning, 1950, Edward Hopper; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation. 1986.6.92


Modern American Realism is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from the Sara Roby Foundation, Bonnie and Peter McCausland, Kelly Williams & Andrew Forsyth and Jason Tilroe. The C. F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program Treasures to Go.

About Sara Roby

Artist Sara Roby lived on Orange Street and then Liberty Street until her passing 30 years ago. She was a strong supporter of many local arts and cultural organizations through the mid and late twentieth century. In addition, she was an avid collector and amassed a remarkable collection of early-and-mid-twentieth century American artists. As early as 1953, she supported artists both on island and off through the purchase and exhibition of their work. Her collection was given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in 1986.

Sara Mary Barnes Roby was granddaughter of Henry Fownes, creator of Oakmont Country Club golf course and daughter of John Barnes, “First-Founder” of Pine Valley Golf Club. He owned two companies in Pennsylvania and so Sara inherited chairperson positions at both. She attended Vassar for a period and then studied art in New York, with a studio next to Salvador Dali at Carnegie Hall. On Nantucket she excelled at golf and was a member at Sankaty Head Golf Club. Her painting skills were only surpassed by her eye for collecting.

Now members have an opportunity to view this collection, which has been expertly curated by Virginia Mecklenburg, Chief Curator at SAAM. We hope this exhibition sets a precedent and fellow collectors will sharing their exemplary collections with the public under the auspices of the NHA. Joseph Roby, Sara’s son, is honorary chair along with Bonnie and Peter McCausland. Advisory Committee Chairs are NHA President Kelly Williams and her husband Andrew Forsyth, and past-trustee Jason Tilroe, who also serve as SAAM commissioners. The Board of Trustees thanks Stephanie Stebich, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director, and Virginia Mecklenburg, Chief Curator at SAAM for facilitating this exhibition and allowing it to come home to Nantucket.

Sponsored by:

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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