John Howard Sanden and the Lost Art of Portraiture

Eric Russ


The last century of artistic development has seen an almost complete revision of the realist aspirations that had preoccupied Western culture for generations. Favoring abstraction as a means of expression and later as a way of entering into the realm of the purely philosophical, efforts to move toward a complete absence of realism moved the art historical narrative into the era of contemporary art. In the shadows of the mainstream, a handful of traditionalists have carried on painting as if the modernist fashion for abstraction had never happened. Tastes have changed in the past hundred years. Collectors by and large favor artists who have followed in the footsteps of the Impressionists, and of Picasso, almost exclusively celebrating art that has fit itself into the story of modernism.


There does seem at least one arena, however, in which realism still seems wholly appropriate. Even today, within a culture that is entrenched so fully in the lessons of modernism, it feels appropriate to commission a realist painter to render the presidential portrait. On May 31, the White House held an unveiling ceremony for the latest addition to its time-honored tradition of oil portraits – George W. Bush. The 43rd president, who has been conspicuously absent from the public eye since finishing his second term, was in good spirits for the festivities.


A high-profile commission of the caliber of the official presidential portrait is no doubt an honor coveted by countless artists.  Setting one’s politics aside, an opportunity to make a painting that will join the ranks of Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of George Washington is one that most artists would jump at. It is interesting then, to consider the choice of John Howard Sanden, who painted not just Mr. Bush, but former First Lady Laura Bush as well.


Sanden is a far cry from art superstardom. In fact, he has circumvented the entire art market infrastructure, electing instead to sell his work directly to the consumer. It has long been the practice in the art world, to sell through galleries, which is seen as a kind of necessary separation of church and state. Under the guidance of a dealer, artists can focus their energy on creating work, and not get bogged down with the encumbrance of sales. It is part of a system that has been developed to dissociate art from money. John Howard Sanden makes no secret of his prices: Head and shoulders - $50,000, three-quarter length - $60,000, or full-length at $75,000. In other corners of the art world, the overt salesmanship of advertising your prices would be seen as distasteful and possibly even harmful to the growth of the market. It would seem that in the niche area of formal portraiture, however, an open marketplace is nothing to hide from.


John Howard Sanden has built his entire career on the art of oil portraits. In 1955, after graduating from the Minneapolis College of Arts, he landed a job as Arts Director at Billy Graham’s Evangelistic Association, a position he would hold for nine years. In search of new opportunities, Sanden left his role with Billy Graham and took a job in New York City, doing portraits for Reader’s Digest. In all, he created some 85 portraits for the magazine, rendering the likeness of some of the hottest personalities of the day, including Bob Hope and Walt Disney. However, it was not until he brought one of his paintings into a prominent gallery, Portraits, Inc., that Sanden’s fate would be sealed as one of the most sought-after and revered portrait artists of his generation.



As it happened, on the day that Sanden brought his work into Portraits, Inc., U.S. Senator Peter Dominic of Colorado was visiting the gallery, and the following day he commissioned a portrait from the young Sanden. The rest, as they say, is history. Five hundred-some portraits later, Sanden has become the de facto painter of U.S. public officials, CEOs, high-society notables, and yes, even former president George W. Bush. Claiming what is surely the highest prize in the market of portrait commissions, Sanden has indeed cemented his place as the premiere portraitist in a generation.


In addition to his rather prolific body of work, Sanden has also dedicated his life to education. Shortly after arriving in New York, he took a position with the teaching faculty of the famed Arts Students League, an institution that has been central to the history of art, with such notable alums as Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and countless others. He founded the Portrait Institute in 1974, an organization that acts as a platform for disseminating the John Howard Sanden method through travelling seminars, lectures and the sale of his best-selling books. His career, perhaps fittingly, is one in which John Howard Sanden has preached the gospel of portrait painting. From his early days working with the Billy Graham “crusades,” Sanden has positioned himself as something of an authority on portrait painting. His books have been a guide for innumerable aspiring artists, who, like Sanden, revere the tradition of portraiture.


It seems appropriate that Sanden should get tapped for the honor of painting the Bush portraits. Not only is he a lifelong student of the art of portrait painting, but he is somewhat of an aficionado when it comes to the legacy of presidential portraits. In response to a 2007 Wall Street journal article  titled, Why Presidential Portraiture Lost Its Stature,  Sanden formed a two-part response coming to the defense of modern portraiture: "Times have changed in portraiture," he writes. "Leaders—both in politics and in business—decry any pretension or 'posing.' Leaders ask to be portrayed as 'natural,' 'likeable,' 'approachable,' etc. As a professional portrait painter myself, I've never been asked to work toward an Olympian or heroic result. Just the opposite. In my own portrait practice, subjects specifically expect to be portrayed as down-to-earth, friendly and unpretentious."


The presentation of the Bush portraits was an unusually jovial event, considering the impossibly polarized political climate of the United States in the last decade. Bush was in rare form. Turning to President Obama, he self-deprecatingly joked that as things in the White House get difficult, he could always “gaze at this portrait and ask, ‘What would George do?”


Author Bio:

Eric Russ is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic. He attended New York University, where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in ‘The Sense of Self,’ an interdisciplinary investigation of human identity.  He holds a Master’s Degree in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.


​Photos:; Zimbio.

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