John Howard Sanden: An Extraordinary Life

John Howard Sanden: An Extraordinary Life

On Christmas Eve, 2022, beloved portrait artist, author and teacher John Howard Sanden went to be with the Savior he had loved and served since he was 6 years old.

In a letter to friends, Sanden’s son, Jonathan, said, “He died peacefully at home in the loving care of my mother, Elizabeth, and the wonderful nurses of the Ridgefield Visiting Nurse Association. Always with a flair for the dramatic, it seems fitting that he would choose Christmas Eve to go home. He was larger than life for so many of us, and we will miss him dearly.”

Sanden, who was 87, had a career that spanned 56 years as a painter of commissioned portraits. He completed 450 images of American leaders in government, business and the professions. His official White House portraits of President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush were unveiled at the White House on May 31, 2012.

Over 27 years, Sanden painted portraits of a series of African royalty, including His Majesty the Alaafin of Oyo; His Royal Highness, the Emir of Kano; and others. 

He was the author of seven books on portrait painting, and he taught portraiture at the Art Students League of New York, where he lectured annually for 25 years. He and Elizabeth founded the Portrait Institute in 1974. In 1979, he launched The National Portrait Seminar, which ran until 1993. The seminar’s lecture format was new to the art world, and artists from around the world attended.

Sanden’s work was widely acclaimed. In 1994, he received the John Singer Sargent Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the American Society of Portrait Artists. That same year, he received an honorary Fine Arts doctorate degree from Houghton College. And in 2005, he received the Founders Gold Medal from the Portrait Society of America.

But more important to Sanden than any earthly accolade was his relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. He was just 6 when he went forward during a church meeting in DeRidder, Louisiana, where his father, Oscar, was pastor. About seven years later, in 1948, Billy Graham became president of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis, and he invited Oscar to become dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

“We moved from the rural Deep South to Minneapolis,” Sanden told Decision in 2019. “My mother had to go out and buy shoes for my brother and me,” he said. “We had never worn shoes that I can remember, and we had to learn how to be city boys.”

After high school, Sanden attended art school and soon was using his artistic talent to serve the Lord. In 1961, he began working for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. His Decision magazine covers—several of them depicting Mary and Joseph on the night of Jesus’ birth or Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb—were in such demand that for years, readers could request prints of the artwork from BGEA for the cost of postage and handling.

In 1969, Sanden left BGEA and moved to New York, launching his prolific portrait career. For 34 years, his studio was located in Carnegie Hall, where he hosted many of the distinguished subjects of his portraits.

During his career, Sanden turned down just two commissioned portraits. 

The first happened early in his career. “My father, who was a minister, left the pastorate and with a group of other Louisiana clergymen founded the Louisiana Moral and Civic Foundation,” Sanden said. “Louisiana was undergoing what they called local option. All of the parishes were being asked to vote wet or dry on alcohol sales. My father and his friends spent several years traveling across Louisiana, urging the parishes to vote dry. And many of them did. When I came to New York and my agent phoned and said, ‘I have Mr. Bronfman, the chairman of Seagram Distilleries, for you,’ I had no alternative. I didn’t have to debate it for one second. I would never have been able to face my father if I had painted that portrait.”

The second happened in June 2019, when he was asked to paint the portrait of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. Sanden’s decision hinged on another issue on which he took a strong stand: abortion.

“There is no compromise in the pro-life issue,” Sanden explained. “You can either kill the child or you can’t. When my precious daughter, Pamela, was in college, she went all over Canada giving a passionate pro-life speech. My wife is a pro-life advocate who works in the Hopeline Pregnancy Resource Centers in Connecticut, and I’m passionate about the issue myself. And when I read in Decision about Cooper vetoing a bill that would protect the life of a child who had escaped the abortionist and been born alive, I thought, Good heavens. What is he thinking? What have we come to? I called my agent and said, ‘I just can’t do it.’”

One of Sanden’s last works was a painting that now appears as a 32×20-foot mural of Christ’s empty tomb in “The Journey of Faith” at the newly renovated Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. As guests leave the final theater, they walk through a “crosswalk” exit and see Sanden’s magnificent mural, with the stone rolled away from the tomb and the burial cloths lying by themselves—Jesus Christ has risen and is alive forevermore.

John Howard Sanden lived in that hope. ©2023 BGEA

Photo: Thomas J. Petrino/©2021 BGEA

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