Want your head nailed to the wall? Get in line. Business is booming
who paint likenesses at up to $50,000 a pop.
By Lea Goldman
Forbes Magazine, October 8, 2001.
"Sanden is one
dozen or so portrait
e's no slouch in real life. But on canvashis looks enhanced
by some cerulean blue and an aspect of wry cunningLaurence
Tisch looks very important. No surprise, given that the co-chairman
of Loews Corporation captains a conglomerate worth $10 billion (market
cap). But on that winter morning in 1999 when he posed in his office
for the portrait that now hangs at New York University, where he
is a trustee, Tisch at times looked more preoccupied than powerful,
glancing between the man painting him and the computers that tracked
the tremors in his $2.1 billion fortune.
No hint of that distraction appears
in the finished painting, nor any telltale signs of his current
78 years. It's a portrait you sense Tisch would have liked in
wallet-size, or to replace the photo on his driver's license.
It's that good, worth every penny of the $35,000 price tag. On
average, that's what John Howard Sanden charges chief executives,
socialites and other power brokers. Among those who've sat: Metromedia's
John Kluge (net worth: $10.6 billion), SAS Institute's James Goodnight
($4.6 billion), Citigroup's Sanford Weill ($1.6 billion). Sanden
is currently painting Aetna head honcho Dr. John Rowe.
Sanden is one of a dozen or so portrait
kingpins who charge around $25,000 for a head-and-shoulders oil
and up to $50,000 for a full-body portrait. The best, such as
Everett Raymond Kinstler, in Manhattan, have a waiting list of
up to two years. (A portrait of AIG Chairman Maurice "Hank"
Greenberg and his wife, Corinne, shares studio space with sketches
of a dapper Tony Bennett and a stiff-lipped Bill Clinton.)
Despite market woes, professional
portrait artists aren't pawning their palettes to pay the rent.
Last year Manhattan's Portraits, Inc. found commissions for some
300 portraits. This year it'll be closer to 200, with middle-tier
artists charging on average $10,000 a pop; the gallery pockets
40%. "We're recession-proof," boasts owner Marian MacKinney.
Maybe because Silicon Valleywith its here-today, gone-next-quarter
upstarts, never was a serious chunk of the corporate portrait
business. "We haven't had one dot-commer. They don't stay
in one position, or in one place, for too long," says MacKinney.
The resistance also has something
to do with the crusty, dour reputation still dogging the profession.
When John Singer Sargent, the Rembrandt of modern portraiture,
unveiled "Madame X" in 1884, he nearly wiped out centuries-old
codes dictating a subject's pose and demeanor. His depiction of
a bare-shouldered Paris celebrity in a size-too-small black gown
was a stick in the eye of tradition. But try explaining that to
the Brooks Brother seated in the studio with a $25,000 check in
his pocket. What the client wants, the client gets. "When
I just started out I wasn't feeling pressure. I was just having
fun," explains Sanden. "Now my clients are more conservative,
and I'm more cautious."
That's precisely why portrait artists
often feel slighted by the artistic community at large. There's
no real mandate to create a work of artjust a contract to
create a well-crafted, preferably appealing likeness of someone
wealthy or important enough to demand one. That was once good
enough for such masters as Hans Holbein the Younger, who immortalized
many of the big-league hitters in the court of Henry VIII.
To liven up an uninspired portrait,
Sanden will add a flash of color to a tie or a barely-there smirk,
as in Tisch's portrait. Such touches illustrate why choosing a
portrait artist is as important as selecting a good plastic surgeon.
An error in judgment can yield a lifetime of regret. It's worth
soliciting recommendations from other chiefs at the clubhouse
or calling a gallery specializing in portraits. The Portrait Source,
in Hendersonville, N.C., for example, represents 50 artists across
the country and offers recommendations based on the subject, how
much you're willing to pay and where the painting will hang.
Ask how much sitting time is involved.
William Franklin Draper, the so-called dean of portrait artists,
who painted a short-sleeved John F. Kennedy for the White House,
requires three mornings. (Kennedy later insisted on being portrayed
in a jacket.) Most artists ask for at least two sittings for two
hours or so. Cancel the board meeting and forward all calls to
your assistant. "He can take a call as long as it's from
the White House," says Sanden, who made the exception only
once, when then-Riggs National Corp. chairman Joe L. Allbritton
took a call from President George Bush in 1992.
Some artists won't do posthumous
portraitsor paint from photos. Last year Bill Gates commissioned
Margaret Sargent to paint his mother, who died in 1994. Gates
and his father gave Sargent photos and home videos of family gatherings.
But painting a seated Mary Maxwell Gates proved challenging, so
Sargent herself donned a suit and pumps and posed for photos to
work from. The results were imperfect and required reworking.
"They suggested that I change the color of her shoes. She
always wore the same color shoes as her suits. And they told me
that she didn't wear nail polish," says Sargent, who is related
to John Singer Sargent through marriage.
Ex post facto changes are common,
and upper-echelon artists are adept at finessing sore spots like
a receding hairline or an advancing paunch. Other tips: Request
that a mirror be set up so you can watch the painter in progressand
that you be allowed periodic peeks at the unfinished work. Be
explicit about how large the painting should be (no larger than
the company's former chief executives, typically with similar
framing). Sanden recalls how he delivered a portrait to a retiring
chief, only to learn that it was a lot larger than the company's
other portraits. The solution? The client insisted Sanden paint
his predecessor the same size.
The costs of corporate portraits
are almost always borne by the company despite lagging sales or
stock slide. (Though you can bet the expense is rarely mentioned
at the annual shareholders' meeting.) Still, if the board of directors
throws cold linseed oil on your plans, consider hiring an upstart
like Minneapolis-based Steven Levin, 37, or award-winning Sacha
Mobarak, 22, of Brooklyn, N.Y., both of whom charge as little
as $5,000 a head. Or hire someone unrepresented by a gallery,
like Simmie Knox, the Silver Spring, Md. artist recently commissioned
to paint the official White House portrait of Bill Clinton. Knox,
who has painted portraits of Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall
and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, says he had to "touch up" the
former President's watery eyes, irritated by the allergies that
plagued him. Says Knox: "I believe at some point you have
to flatter a person."