The New Yorker Magazine, April 23 & 30, 2001.
"The Talk of the Town"
By Adam Lehner
Sanden is one of
the most famous
portraitists in the
Portrait of Laurence A. Tisch by John Howard
ohn Howard Sanden is one of the most famous portraitists in the
business. Among those he has painted are Laurence Tisch, Senator
Robert Byrd, David Rockefeller, John Kluge, and the Reverend Billy
Graham. He charges twenty-five thousand dollars for depicting his
subject's head and shoulders (not including the hands), thirty-five
thousand for a three-quarter-length portrait, forty-five thousand
for the full-length treatment, and twenty-five thousand for each
additional figure on the canvas. When he heard that Mayor Giuliani
would be forming a "decency" panel to monitor the public
funding of cultural institutions and the arts, he decided, as an
artist and as a long-standing member of the Presbyterian Church,
Sitting the other day in his small but elegant Carnegie Hall studio,
Sanden, who has a square jaw and sandy hair, talked about his decision:
"I told my son I'd be on the Mayor's panel and he said, `What?
Dad, that's a Nazi panel. You can't do that!' I said, `Jonathan,
there aren't going to be any Nazis on that panel. That's the furthest
thing from the panel's mind.'"
Sanden's latest production, a portrait of Sanford Weill, the C.E.O.
of Citigroup, and his wife, sat on an easel in the center of the
room. In the picture, Weill looks as though he were thinking about
something moderately funny, and he is wearing a tie patterned with
little red umbrellas. His wife sits on a chair, wearing a collarless
jacket covered in sequins. Sanden is proud of the sequins-"Only
a few of them catch the light and sparkle"-as well as his new
method of painting pinstripes, which involves adding them while
the paint is still wet. "They have to be subtle," he said.
"I used to only put in every other stripe, but then I realized
that that's not being honest."
As for Weill, Sanden said, "He's a wonderful man, one of the
nicest men I have ever met. And I thought he was going to be a holy
terror. But that's what I've learned-that nice people rise to the
top. Sanford Weill cares about exactly the same things you and I
care about. He has a boat, he has a family. His No. 1 thing is certainly
Sanden had his first artistic experience in Mississippi, where his
father was a Presbyterian minister. When Sanden was six, his father
handed him a copy of The Life of Abraham Lincoln in Photographs,
and told him to copy all the images in the book In the evenings,
his father would assess his work, basing the critique, Sanden said,
"on fidelity to detaildid I have the mole in the right
place." Then Sanden tackled T he Life of Christ Visualized.
After four years at the Minneapolis School of Art, Sanden went to
work for the Lutheran Church and the Seventh-Day Adventists, and
he eventually became the art director for Billy Graham's ministries.
Later, he did portraits from photographs of famous figures like
Bob Hope and King Hussein for Reader's Digest.
Sanden says that the wealthy people he paints now are individuals
of "extraordinary accomplishment." "Nobody says,
`I want to look powerful.' The C.E.O. says, `I want to look approachable,
I want to look amiable.'They don't ask for this, but I try to make
them look urbane. Occasionally, with a man who has maybe gone through
his whole life being shorter than he wished he was, you might instinctively
give him a little more stature in the portrait. They never ask for
it, but they kind of appreciate it."
Sanden is not the only person on the Mayor's Cultural Affairs Advisory
Commission to specialize in the depiction of accomplished men. Constance
Del Vecchio/Maltese, a sixty-eight-year-old woman from Queens, is
best known for the paintings of great explorers she did for the
five-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of
America. Maltese based her images of Verrazano, da Gama, and others
almost entirely on local Republican politicians and judges, including
a portrait of Columbus modeled on her husband, State Senator Serphin
Sanden believes that city-funded museums should be careful not to
offend citizens, lest government funding disappear altogether. He
admitted that he hasn't been to MOMA lately and cited as his favorite
contemporary artists such portraitists as Raymond Kinstler, Bob
Crofut, and Aaron Shikler. For years, Sanden regularly visited the
Met to study Shikler's 1974 portrait of Robert Lehman, which hung
outside the museum's Lehman wing (and which is now in deep storage).
Sanden appears to be somewhat tortured over not having been more
tortured as an artist. "I'm at the point in life where, looking
back, I see I took a wrong turn, maybe," he said. "I wish
I could have been freer, taken a less controlled, conservative approach.
But I have too many bills to pay to care about that now. My job
is to discern what the subject's self-image is and give it to him.
I don't think that's unworthy or pandering or flattering or anything
else. I think that's a legitimate professional undertaking. Whether
or not it's artand you're thinking, This guy is on the Cultural
Affairs Advisory Commission with that kind of attitude? I'm not
James Johnson Sweeney. I'm not an expert on aesthetics. Someone
else will have to say if it's art."