Index of Historic Collectors and Dealers of Cubism
Soby, James Thrall
Hartford, Conn.,1906–Norwalk, Conn., 1979

James Thrall Soby was a collector, art historian, and curator of modern French art who helped organize one of the earliest museum retrospectives of Picasso’s work in the United States at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1934.

In 1924 Soby began undergraduate course work in art history at Williams College before abandoning his studies at the end of his sophomore year and traveling to Paris with his mother. While at Williams he had developed an interest in illustrated books and purchased color reproductions of works by American illustrator Maxfield Parrish to decorate his dormitory room. His trip to Paris was inspired by a desire to see works by contemporary artists firsthand, including those by André Derain, Matisse, and Picasso. Back in the United States in January 1930, Soby purchased his first paintings, including Matisse’s The Red Sofa (1919–21; Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia), which he acquired from Valentine Dudensing’s Valentine Gallery in New York. Seeking other modern art enthusiasts in Connecticut, Soby met Arthur Everett (Chick) Austin, Jr., who was curator and director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford from 1927 until 1944. Soby’s early collecting habits were deeply informed by Austin’s tastes. The young collector made frequent trips to New York, swapping and purchasing paintings and drawings from Valentine’s gallery for his personal collection, as well as making regular loans to temporary exhibitions organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum. In 1931, Soby purchased his first work by Picasso, an unidentified drawing on canvas, and the following year he acquired Seated Woman (1927; The Museum of Modern Art, New York) from Valentine Gallery.

Soby and Austin organized Pablo Picasso, the artist’s first retrospective held in the United States, which opened in February 1934. The exhibition featured roughly one hundred works: paintings, drawings, gouaches, watercolors, and prints dating from 1906 to 1934, and introduced the diverse range of Picasso’s oeuvre to American audiences. Soby would remain at the Wadsworth Atheneum until 1938, helping Austin to secure loans and organize exhibitions. In 1940 he moved to New York and held a number of roles at the Museum of Modern Art, initially participating on the Advisory and Acquisitions Committees and in 1943, serving as the Director of Painting and Sculpture and Assistant Director of the museum. Soby curated over fourteen exhibitions, including Balthus (1956), Jean Arp (1958), and Juan Gris (1958). Throughout this period he continued to expand his personal collection, focusing on Italian modernism and painters of the New York School. In the years before his death, he donated and sold the bulk of his collection to the Museum of Modern Art. Cubist works in his gift include three works by Picasso from the 1920s and two by Gris, including Still Life (1916; Museum of Modern Art, New York). Additionally, Soby’s bequest included a number of important Surrealist works: nine paintings by Giorgio de Chirico; three by Yves Tanguy; two by Salvador Dalí; and four by Joan Miró, including Still Life with Old Shoe (1937; Museum of Modern Art, New York), as well as other examples of European and American modernism.

Contributed by Rachel Boate, August 2017
For more information, see:

The James Thrall Soby Collection of Works of Art Pledged or Given to the Museum of Modern Art. New York: M. Knoedler and Company, 1961.

Weber, Nicholas Fox. Patron Saints: Five Rebels Who Opened America to a New Art, 1928–1943. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

The James Thrall Soby Papers are held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. For more information, click here.