For 50 years, John Howard Sanden has painted the portraits of some of the most prominent people of our time—nearly 400 of them. They include business leaders, university presidents, prominent physicians, philanthropists, cabinet secretaries, senators, the heads of the six largest banks in the United States and five African kings. He has written five books on portrait painting and taught tens of thousands about portraiture through lecture tours, seminars, the Portrait Institute and The Art Students League of New York. His official portraits of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush were unveiled at the White House on May 31, 2012. Sanden has painted a portrait of President Donald Trump, and he said he would be honored to paint the official portrait of the 45th president.
But in June, for just the second time in his long career, Sanden turned down a commissioned portrait—that of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.
“I’ve never been a crusader with my work,” Sanden told Decision. “I’ve studiously avoided talking politics with the people I paint. And I don’t know, maybe half the people I’ve painted, had I gone into their background, I might have found something I could object to.”
So why decline those two particular portraits?
The first one 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. 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.”
His decision about the Cooper portrait hinged on another issue on which Sanden has taken a 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 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.’”
Sanden’s moral convictions grow out of a personal faith in Jesus Christ that began at age 6, when he went forward during a church meeting in DeRidder, Louisiana, where his father was pastor. About seven years later, in 1948, Billy Graham became president of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis, and he invited Sanden’s father, Oscar, to become dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
“We moved from the rural Deep South to Minneapolis,” Sanden recalled. “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.
One cover depicted several young people listening to “The Greatest News”—the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the upper left-hand corner stands a young Franklin Graham and, behind him, Jane Austin Cunningham, whom he would later marry.
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.
“For years, I painted as the person sat,” he said. “I’d set up my easel and canvas and slave away. I’ve long since cut that out because it burned through time that could be spent so much more profitably. Now, I have two photographic sittings in which I take hundreds of photographs. We go to lunch. We go to dinner. I get to know them quite well.
“Everybody has a self-image, and my job is to portray that self-image. In other words, I’m not a camera—I don’t portray every wart and wrinkle. I portray them as they see themselves. A person wants to be seen in a certain way, and it’s my duty as a portrait painter to find out what that is. I’m trying to show them at their best.”
The Trump portrait, Sanden says, is the only portrait for which he did not have a sitting with the subject.
“I did it entirely from pictures of the president,” he explained. “I’ve never met Donald Trump.”
It is unusual for a presidential portrait to be completed before the president’s term is over. But Sanden suggests that because Trump has broken with tradition in so many other ways, he might be willing to do so again with his portrait.
Sanden is grateful for the president’s strong pro-life policies, and he sees a need for Christians to defend and proclaim Biblical truth as the culture celebrates immorality in a way that would have seemed inconceivable 50 years ago.
“Listen, somebody’s got to take a stand,” Sanden said. “Somebody’s got to take a stand for the Lord because we’re going down the tubes.”
Photos: Courtesy of John Howard Sanden