The Man Who Makes the Moguls Look Good

The New Yorker Magazine, April 23 & 30, 2001.
"The Talk of the Town"

By Adam Lehner

Portrait of Laurence A. Tisch   "John Howard

Sanden is one of

the most famous

portraitists in the

business."
Portrait of Laurence A. Tisch by John Howard Sanden

J 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, to volunteer.

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 not banking."

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 detail—did 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 Maltese.

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 art—and 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."


 
 
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