The Danbury News-Times, Danbury, Connecticut
Tuesday, July 15, 2003
By Susan Tuz
Photo by Wendy Carlson
" 'I regard
the top portrait painter
in the country today,'
said the prominent
painter Richard Schmid.'
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
"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
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