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Behind the Scenes: A Dazzling Display of Modern Art

Sam Rose

Sam Rose '58 with one of his favorites, a four-sided ceramic vessel painted by Pablo Picasso. On it, the artist painted a barn owl he kept as a pet. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Sam Rose '58 offers a sneak peek at museum-worthy collection

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

At the top of Sam Rose ‘58’s driveway, three friendly creatures await your arrival. Two are dogs—rescued, along with a pup that’s mostly indoors, by Sam’s wife, Julie Walters—and the third is Personnage, a bug-eyed bronze sculpture by surrealist Joan Miró. It’s just one of the master artworks dotting Rose’s private modern art garden, and inside the house, once owned by the late Hollywood actor-socialite Dina Merrill, there are many more.

The Rose-Walters art collection corrals works by a jaw-dropping parade of modern art luminaries: Miró, Alexander Calder, David Hockney, Edward Hopper, Roy Lichtenstein, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Joseph Stella, Wayne Thiebaud, Tom Wesselmann and Andy Warhol among them. A handful of the pieces were showcased in a spring 2016 exhibition, “Cross Currents: Modern Art From the Sam Rose and Julie Walters Collection,” at the Smithsonian Art Museum, where Rose is an emeritus vice chair of the board.

Acquired over decades, the collection reflects the investment smarts and thrill-of-the-hunt instincts that helped catapult Rose to the top of the Washington, D.C., real-estate development market. And it also points to a lifelong infatuation with color and line.

“I didn’t have any exposure to art as a kid,” recalls Rose, a Baltimore native, “but I did have a stamp collection, and stamps have a lot of color and design—they’re like little paintings, in that way.” An art-appreciation course, taught by Milton Flower ’31, opened Rose to a new visual world and a new source for that collector’s adrenaline rush: He was hooked. He began with a few inexpensive posters and prints, and as his career grew exponentially, so too did his collection.

Sam Rose

Rose in his sculpture garden. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Rose favors modernist works with arresting colors and uplifting vibes. In one cozy living area of his Maryland home, Picassos set the tone—including three swoon-worthy portraits of the master’s great loves, which frame a fireplace, and a four-sided vase decorated with paintings of Picasso’s pet owl. A pop-art painting of meringues by Thiebaud strikes delicious inspiration in the kitchen, while a Warhol dollar sign broadcasts American optimism upstairs. A portrait of Rose’s son, painted by Alice Neel, adds a personal touch.

Rose has an illuminating anecdote about every piece, there for the asking. Some stories center on acquisition (a Pollock, for example, was one of several exchanged for a property in Florida); others on the artist or work.

“This is how she thought a woman should look!” Rose notes, as he walks past a curvaceous figure by Niki de Saint Phalle. Discussing a scandalous play that inspired Miró’s reflection on capitalist trappings, he trots out an incendiary line. Pointing out a distinctive Neel landscape, he explains why the artist found success in the English art market but enjoyed little enthusiasm at home in New York.

Asked to name favorites, Rose zeros in on two Ocean Park paintings by Richard Diebenkorn. He likes the tensions between the abstract expressionist’s washed-out, dreamy palates and crisp architectural lines—an echo, maybe, of the loveliness this legendary developer might find in a well-designed skyscraper frame, set against a pastel sky.

“This is one of three things I’m good at these days—art, fishing and playing cards,” he says, waving away any protests, pointing to his ongoing commercial projects, philanthropic work and beekeeping and gardening expertise, et cetera. Then he and the dogs venture outside to enjoy the views.

Read the full profile on Rose, "Championing the Underdog," from the summer 2018 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

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Published August 6, 2018