John Howard Sanden portraits  
Face Value

The nation's most distinguished portrait painters work
here among us. Sit with two of them: Daniel E. Greene
and John Howard Sanden.

By Joyce Caruso Corrigan

Ridgefield Magazine, Spring 2003.

  Top, Daniel E, Greene in his North Salem, New York, studio.
Below, John Howard Sanden in his Ridgefield studio.

J ohn Singer Sargent, supreme portraitist of the sophisticated city-dwelling American aristocrat, probably went unnoticed as he disembarked at the Branchville station one morning in 1912. He was headed, easel in hand, for Weir Farm, summer retreat of American impressionist Julian Alden Weir and a soon-to-be legendary art colony. For Sargent, the visit was insignificant-yielding no typically lush, glittering masterpieces. But for current Ridgefield resident John Howard Sanden, it was important and would resonate with his own life.

"Sargent was a genius. Talented beyond words," declares Sanden, "Rembrandt was a freshman compared to him." Indeed, Sanden has been following in Sargent's paint-splattered footsteps his whole life. Dubbed by columnist Pete Hamill "the closest thing we have in America to a court painter," Sanden was, as fate would have it, the first recipient of the John Singer Sargent Medal for Lifetime Achievement. Names such as Rockefeller, Ford, and Luce glisten like so many jewels in Sanden's crown. No surprise then that when, almost twenty years ago, it came time for the Manhattan-based Sanden to seek a suitable country refuge, only Ridgefield - amply blessed by Sargent - could claim hallowed-ground status. Today, Sanden makes a weekly trek from Branchville station to Grand Central to get to his other studio in Carnegie Hall. ("The 6:39 gets me to Grand Central at 8:09, I eat my muffin, read my Times. Very doable.")

The light, landscape, and coastline of Connecticut have long composed a siren chorus for serious painters. Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, and Albert Pinkham Ryder were all Weir Farm regulars, while not far off there were both the celebrated Florence Griswold group in Old Lyme and the Silvermine Guild of Art in New Canaan where Milton Avery and Helen Frankenthaler found inspiration. The tradition has remained strong, particularly in our immediate area. This winter marked the first anniversary of the Connecticut Society of Portrait Artists, founded by Stamford artist Jeanine Jackson, a Silvermine student of Ridgefielder George Passantino. Among its 44 professional portraitists are Susan Durkee in Redding, Kathleen Kennedy in Fairfield, and Marie Lynch in Wilton. But the true masters are Sanden and Daniel E. Greene, who is also a celebrated painter of politicians, moguls, and major generals.

Sanden's first teacher was his father, a minister who encouraged both his first sketches as well as attendance at the Minneapolis School of Art. Sanden's first major client was Reader's Digest, for whom he did 85 portraits-everyone from Bob Hope to King Hussein to Mother Teresa. In his almost four decades as a portraitist, Sanden has accumulated an impressive subject list throughout the political, academic, clerical and corporate worlds: Reverend Billy Graham, media mogul Laurence Tisch, and Ambassador Antonio Deinde Fernandez of Nigeria ("I did a bunch of African kings in the late `70s," says Sanden). His stately rendering of Brown University President Donald Hornig was something of an homage to Sargent's 1923 portrait of Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell. Today Sanden is one of the highest-paid portraitists in the world-with canvases ranging between $20,000 and $50,000.

Most sittings take place at Sanden's Carnegie Hall studio. He could, he says, lure the VIPs up here, but chooses not to: Carnegie Hall is more professional, he says. Besides, picture a young Nigerian royal receiving these directions: "A right at Copps Hill Plaza. Drive a few miles past some unmarked farms until you see the yellow colonial at the corner of Cams Hill. Just look for the barking dog."

Sharing space with the oil paints and ten-foot-high wooden easel in his Ridgefield studio are a state-of-the-art camera and a computer. "The tradition in portrait painting is this: The subject walks in, climbs up on the platform and takes a seat. You have a white canvas on the easel and you walk in in your smock and go to work. It's been done that way for 600 years. And that's fine if you're Sargent, and you and your sitter have all the time in the world. But if you're just a poor schlump like me, you use a camera, When your sitter leaves, you keep on working. Instead of charcoals, I use my camera as a sketch pad to get different poses." Then the artist retreats to Ridgefield, where he says he completes 95 percent of the portrait on his own, filling in the background details, and perhaps rethinking them via Photoshop. For the finishing touches, he insists on seeing the subject one more time-"the final sitting."

"There's an inverse ratio between the amount of time you spend on a painting and the success of it. Sometimes after a day and a half you know you have it." Then, laughing, he adds, "But you don't dare tell your client you've done a $35,000 portrait in less than two days."

Just a few miles west in North Salem is Daniel E. Greene, who insists on taking his own sweet time with the thousands of portraits he has painted. Even if that means not letting the 21st century enter his workday: He paints mostly from life, rarely from photographs (except in rare cases, such as his posthumous portrait of William Randolph Hearst). "There's a lot lacking in being removed from the subject: colors and details. The photo is a split second-a single mood. The painted portrait is a compilation of many moods and the artist selects the essence."

Greene knew at age ten, after his first museum visit in his hometown of Cincinnati, that he wanted to be an artist. He dropped out of high school and worked for a short time in Miami before enrolling in the Arts Students League in New York. There he studied with Robert Brackman and eventually took over Brackman's classes. "My academic provenance is rather interesting," says Greene, "because Brackman studied with George Bellows who studied with Thomas Eakins."

Today Greene and his wife, the artist and Ridgefield native Wende Caporale, share a sprawling 19th-century country estate off Route 116 that they've rechristened Studio Hill Farm. Says Greene: "When I saw this place, I took out a compass and prayed that it faced north," which produces the ideal daylight for painters. It did (well, northeast) and he's been here 22 years. For the most part, Greene's portraits of the good and the great hang in Ivy League universities, governors' mansions, statehouses, and boardrooms. One of Eleanor Roosevelt hangs at Hyde Park and another will be transferred from the White House to the Clinton library in Arkansas. Rush Limbaugh, Gov. Benjamin Cayetano of Hawaii, and Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's, are among his subjects.

Greene, a recipient of the Portrait Society's Medal of Honor two years ago, is nothing if not disciplined-he paints every day, even holidays. And he expects pretty much the same from his sitters. "No matter how important a person is-CEO, celebrity, mayors, I've done them all-they'll pose for as long as you want them to, if that's what you require. I tell them the process will take approximately 10 sittings of three hours each for a life-size seated figure. I get out my calendar and they get out theirs, and we block out that time." Recently Gov. Paul Laxal of Nevada could only schedule once a month with Greene-so the portrait took almost a year.

With author Ayn Rand, who was then already famous for The Fountainhead, Greene says he learned all the things not to do. "I would paint for 90 minutes, then show her what I'd done. She questioned every stroke. I knew from that moment on never to solicit approval from a subject." The Rand portrait-—which pleased the author—was eventually finished and made its way into a documentary on her that was nominated for an Oscar. Which pleases the artist.

The ego boost of having CEOs and members of the ruling class in your studio and in your power—if only for a few hours—isn't the motivating factor, say both artists. "The satisfying part is the process," insists Greene. "Painting human beings and bringing out their salient characteristics is endlessly fascinating." For Sanden, who also taught at the Art Students League for 25 years, and at his own Portrait Institute for many years, the joy is also in inspiring others. "You know, getting the letter that says, `Thanks to you, I quit my dull job in Savannah to devote myself to painting."

But at the end of the day, being part of the grand tradition, the ever-evolving palette of American portrait painting, seems a thrill like no other. Recalls Sanden: "One day I was painting David Rockefeller in my Carnegie Hall studio, and he suddenly says, `You know, when I was five years old, I watched John Singer Sargent paint my grandfather,' and, well, my hair just stood on end."