Portrait of An Artist

The Danbury News-Times, Danbury, Connecticut
Tuesday, July 15, 2003

By Susan Tuz

John Howard Sanden in Connecticut studio
Photo by Wendy Carlson
Richard Schmid
Richard Schmid

" 'I regard
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him as
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probably
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the top portrait painter
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in the country today,'
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said the prominent
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American Impressionist
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painter Richard Schmid.'

W hether painting the king of a Nigerian province in Africa or executing a portrait of David Rockefeller atop the RCA skyscraper in Rockefeller Center, Ridgefield artist John Sanden captures the unique quality of his subject. Sanden, who was awarded the first John Singer Sargent Medal for Lifetime Achievement in 1994, has been painting portraits of socially and politically important people for more than forty years.

"I've never really done anything else," Sanden said from his Ridgefield studio last week. "My father taught me to copy portraits when I was a boy. Then I went on to art school in Minnesota where, actually, I majored in illustration. I wanted to be Norman Rockwell.

"I'd even bought the bow tie, but it soon became apparent that I wasn't ever going to be Rockwell," Sanden said with a sparkle in his eye.

Sanden's first professional work was done in Minneapolis, where be joined the evangelical movement of The Rev. Billy Graham. He stayed with Graham's organization for nine years. "It was an exciting time," Sanden recalled. "The Billy Graham 'crusades' were sweeping across the whole world… The media attention Graham received in those days was phenomenal."

But while Sanden was comfortably successful in the Graham organization, he "sensed" there was something more and that he had "capabilities that weren't being used." So he moved to New York City in 1969, with a position painting portraits for The Reader's Digest.`

"I remember doing (portraits of) Bob Hope, King Hussein, Walt Disney and Mother Teresa," he recalls in his book The Portraits of John Howard Sanden.

After Sanden had completed some 85 portraits for The Reader's Digest, he took one of his paintings to Portraits, Inc., an important portrait gallery in the city. "They asked me how much I was being paid for a portrait by Reader's Digest, and when I told them, they offered me six times as much to paint for them," Sanden recalled.

That day proved fortuitous for Sanden. U.S. Sen. Peter Dominic of Colorado happened to be in the New York gallery when he brought in that first portrait. The next day, Sanden was contacted by Portraits, Inc.: Dominic wanted Sanden to come to Washington, D.C., and paint his portrait.

Sanden's career as an important portrait painter was firmly established. "It's always all just fallen together," he noted. "It's all I have ever known how to do."

It was 1969 when Sanden established his studio on West Fifty-Seventh Street in New York City. Within five years, he was appointed to the teaching faculty at the Art Students League and had expanded his teaching to nationwide tours.

With typical modesty, he recalled being "amazed" that his lectures and demonstrations "were thronged by artists turning out in groups as large as 700 at a time." In 1974, he founded The Portrait Institute, in which some 34,000 artists participated over the years. In 1979, he engaged a New York theater for the first of nine annual week-long National Portrait Seminars. With hundreds of participants, it was the largest such seminar eve r presented (up to that time).

"I wanted to prove that you could teach art in a venue other than a forest of easels," Sanden noted. "The seminars consisted of demonstrations, question and answer sessions, panel discussions." Sanden might be described as a genius: and definitely can be described as altruistic. His deep respect for his fellow man (and woman) is apparent in viewing his portraits, and after spending only a few moments in his presence. "John Howard is one of the most highly-respected portrait painters in America," said the prominent American. Impressionist painter Richard Schmid, a contemporary of Sanden's. "I regard him as probably the top portrait painter in the country today." What I most admire John Howard for is that he's a dedicated teacher," Schmid continued. "As important as he is and as valuable as his time is, he always has time to teach an interested student."

When Sanden started painting portraits for Portraits, Inc. in the 1970's, his fee was $1,500. Today, the cost of a Sanden portrait starts at $35,000. "That sounds like a lot," Sanden noted, "but a portrait requires a good six months from the time of the initial meeting to the unveiling of the finished piece, and can take as long as two years."

For Sanden, "every, client is wonderfully important. Portraiture is a luxury item, an expensive item," he said. "My clients are always someone who has made an important contribution in the world." Among the prominent figures whose portraits Sanden has painted are former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, former John Hopkins University President Lowell Reed, and The Rev. Billy Graham.

Today, Sanden paints in his studio in Ridgefield and also has a studio in Carnegie Hall in New York City.

 
 
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