Master painter Sergio Roffo captures the essence of Nantucket one stroke at a time.
When Sergio Roffo was growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood west of Boston, the thought of becoming a professional fine art painter was outlandish—if not downright discouraged. After all, his parents were bootstrapping, blue-collar immigrants who believed in working hard with their hands—not so much with paintbrushes, but picks and shovels. Roffo immigrated to the United States at the age of seven with his mother and five siblings from a tiny village in southeastern Italy called San Donato Val di Comino. The family spent two weeks aboard the SS Augustus to reach the United States. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Roffo’s transatlantic voyage would be the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the ocean that continues to inspire his distinguished career today.
Roffo is widely regarded as one of the preeminent fine art painters in the country. His acclaim has come by way of mood-inspiring renderings of beaches, sailboats and maritime landscapes, many of them set on Nantucket. Roffo makes multiple painting pilgrimages to the island each year from his home in Scituate, working en plein air to complete each canvas in a single sitting. “I’ve been coming out here for more than thirty years,” he says. “All you have to do is go to the coast, unfold your easel and find a composition.”
But carving out a career as a painter was hardly a day at the beach. Roffo took a circuitous route to find his feet in the sand and brush in his hand. As Roffo was growing up in Boston, his father tried to convince him to work in the trades. “I was a bulldozer operator, a backhoe operator, truck driver, laborer—you name it, I did it,” he says. “But I kept coming back to my dream of attending art school and just couldn’t see my life as a construction worker.” Roffo’s parents eventually struck a compromise with their youngest son: He could go to art school, but he’d have to study commercial art, which they reasoned might prevent him from becoming a starving artist.
After graduating with a degree in commercial art, Roffo landed a cushy gig in the downtown offices of Fidelity Investments, where he worked as a designer in the audio/visual department. But he still felt a restlessness within him. Roffo wanted to pursue fine arts. During his lunch breaks at Fidelity, he would head to Boston Harbor and break out his watercolors to paint maritime scenes. “I knew this was what I wanted to do, to be a real painter,” Roffo recalls. “So I took the leap and quit my job at Fidelity to pursue my dream.”
Fast-forward forty years and Roffo is one of the most collected artists showing on Nantucket and beyond. “Whether capturing a resting catboat with mist rising or a windswept beach dune or the Moors, Sergio has a unique ability to transport the viewer to their favorite spot on the island,” says Chris Quidley, who has been showing Roffo’s work in his Main Street gallery since opening in 2006. “His warm palette and lush greens make us long to put our toes in the sand and feel the sun on our faces.” Indeed, Roffo’s color palette and precise brush strokes yield airy landscape paintings where the sea breeze seems to waft right off the canvas. “Every established artist has his own signature, if you will,” Roffo says. “My materials, technique, subject matter and the way I apply my colors is what distinguishes me from the rest.”
“Sergio Roffo’s paintings have a quiet beauty that perfectly captures the feeling of New England’s timeless waters,” says Lisa Egeli, the president and fellow of the American Society of Marine Arts. “His dedication to the heart of a place also shows in his works from Italy, South Carolina, California and beyond. In short, Sergio truly does represent the very best in marine art.”
Beyond his painterly techniques, Roffo also credits the Old World work ethic that his parents instilled in him early on as the source of his success. “I knew that someday I would make a living at this, but it wasn’t easy,” he says. “I consider myself a very competitive guy—whether it’s on the tennis courts or back in the days of the hockey rink— and that competitiveness is the same in this business.” In addition to continuing his painting trips to Nantucket, Roffo also returns most years to his native village in Italy to paint. Very few of those Italian landscapes, however, ever find their way into the galleries where his iconic coastal paintings hang. Perhaps they’re too personal. Instead, Roffo hangs them in his home, reminding him of the long journey that got him where he is today.