The nation's most distinguished portrait
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.
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
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 authorwas
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 powerif only for a few hoursisn'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
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."