CT artist who painted President George W. Bush's official portrait dies: 'He gave 110 percent'

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

RIDGEFIELD  — Jonathan Bryant Sanden said he'll never forget the day of May 31, 2012, when he and his family were among the honored guests at the White House for the official unveiling of the portraits his late father John Howard Sanden painted of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

"We got to meet the presidents privately before the event, which was very thrilling. We had a private audience with (former) President Barack Obama, (former) First Lady Michelle Obama, (former) President George W. Bush and (former) First Lady Laura Bush in the Blue Room of the White House shortly before the official ceremony in the East Room," said Sanden, who grew up in Ridgefield but now lives in Illinois. "I remember when we came in the room, Obama and Bush were being very chummy around with each other. The whole day was very cordial and both presidents told lots of jokes."

The older Sanden died Christmas Eve from a form of blood cancer at his Ridgefield home, at the age of 87. John Howard Sanden is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Sanden, who is 74, Jonathan Bryant Sanden, and his daughter, Pamela Brooke Sanden from Massachusetts. He had five grandchildren and many other family members. A 2023 memorial service will be announced. Donations may be given in his memory to The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Noroton Presbyterian Church in Darien, or The Art Students League of New York.

Sanden, 38, who is the father of a 5-week-old son Elijah Wolff Sanden, said his dad was very excited when he was given the opportunity to paint the Bushes. 

"For him, this was going to be one of his biggest, most important commissions ever. This would be what people would know him for and remember him for. He admired so many of the artists that had painted other presidents and other White House portraits. He was like, 'this is my shot. It's got to be perfect,' and so he was determined. He felt immense pressure like that. He wanted to be like them and he wanted to work his hardest and do his best," Sanden said.

He said no matter whose portrait his father worked on, "he gave 110 percent."

"He's very open and proud of the fact that he did eight versions of the Bush portrait. In his words, he was determined to 'get it just right.' After he did one that the president said he liked, my dad said to himself, 'I think I can do better' and so he did seven more versions. It was a long process with  different backgrounds, different poses — that was just the way he worked," Sanden said. "He didn't want to regret anything." 

Life and career

The younger Sanden recounted his father's life and 56-year career as a painter of commissioned portraits. He completed 450 images over the course of his lifetime, including governors, members of Congress, attorney generals, reverends and university presidents including Philip E. Austin, the 13th president of the University of Connecticut who served from 1996 to 2007.

Sanden grew up in Texas and in other Southern states, moved a few times and graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design in Minnesota.

He got his first art job as an illustrator for the evangelist and ordained Southern Baptist minister Billy Graham, where he designed posters and religious art for events and books. He later worked for Reader's Digest, doing covers and story art.

Sanden said one of his father's career highlights was his portraits of Nigerian business magnate Antonio Fernandez, an international businessman.

"He was a super impressive, super distinguished Nigerian uber wealthy businessman who hired him to do several portraits of himself and his colleagues in Africa," Sanden said. "Over many decades, he went to Africa doing portraits of young kings."

He said his father particularly enjoyed those kinds of assignments because they took him "outside of his comfort zone."

He added his dad "prided himself" on getting to know each of his clients. "He admired most of them and he would always speak highly of someone like Ken Langone, who built The Home Depot and donated (many millions of ) dollars — guys like that, that were captains of industry."

Sanden's first wife, Priscilla Sanden, died suddenly at the age of 32 in early 1973 of a brain hemorrhage. Sanden met his second wife Elizabeth Sanden later that year, when she was his student in a portrait painting class he taught at the Art Students League of New York in Manhattan. The couple previously lived in Manhattan and then moved to Washington before settling in Ridgefield in 1985. 

Sanden said when it came to his dad's career, he would always feel the need to do everything "over the top."

"He wouldn't ever send an email," his son said. "He would do a big kind of photo spread, a layout within a design and typeface. He would never just print a flyer, he would do a full color press."

Sanden said his father worked until the end of his life. 

"He's very proud of the fact that his last painting was one of his biggest. He did a memorial portrait of a woman, Jennifer London, along with her late husband and their three boys," Sanden said. "It was like gigantic, full length full family portrait of the five of them."

Sanden finished the portrait in September.

He said his father always thought Ridgefield was a "lovely town."

"My dad would be the first to admit, one of his greatest heroes was Norman Rockwell," Sanden said. "Everyone would agree that Ridgefield still has kind of bucolic Rockwellian feel to it, which he loved. He could be in Manhattan to see clients in an hour and a half. It was the best of both worlds. That's how I also thought of the town while I was growing up."