John Howard Sanden: An Artist Remembered

January 5, 2023

John Howard Sanden was a well-known portrait artist who became one of two art directors for Decision magazine with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1961.

The connection of the Sanden family with Billy Graham, however, began well before 1961. In 1948, while Billy Graham was head of Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis, Rev. Oscar E. Sanden, John Howard Sanden’s father, was Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the school. Billy Graham was president of the school for five years, and Rev. Sanden remained on staff throughout Billy Graham’s tenure there. The two men held each other in high regard and always spoke very warmly of each other. Later, in 1957, a young John Howard Sanden attended the opening night of Billy Graham’s Crusade on the front row in Madison Square Garden in New York City – a night he remembered for the rest of his life.

Decision magazine cover from April, 1962 depicting Mary Magdalene seeing the risen Christ

In 1961, Sanden, a faithful Christian, began a career with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) as an art director for Decision magazine. His art was displayed on numerous covers and often depicted well-known stories from the Bible. The covers were so popular that readers could request prints of the art from the BGEA for the cost of postage and handling.

Painting of Mary with the Baby Jesus by John Howard Sanden, 1969

Sanden left the BGEA in 1969 to open a studio in New York City where he became a renowned portrait artist who painted pictures of U.S. Presidents, African royalty, and more than 400 other notable people of his time.

John Howard Sanden painting a portrait of Billy Graham in 1993

In 1993, John Howard Sanden began a portrait of Billy Graham, which would ultimately take three sittings to complete. At each sitting, Billy Graham would start the session with a prayer, which Sanden said was always “simple and beautiful.” Sanden particularly remembered the third and final sitting which occurred at Billy Graham’s home (unlike the first two sittings which were at his studio in New York). Sanden joined Billy and Ruth Graham for a lunch of spaghetti around their kitchen table and remembered Rev. Graham inviting him to pray before they ate. The portrait Sanden painted now hangs at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove.

John Howard Sanden with his portrait of Billy Graham which now hangs at The Cove

In 2004, Sanden was once again called to do a portrait for the BGEA, this time of Franklin Graham with his father, which would be displayed in the new Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters in Charlotte.

Portrait of Billy and Franklin Graham painted in 2004 by John Howard Sanden

In 2021, BGEA requested Sanden to create a mural for the Billy Graham Library. The mural known as “The Empty Tomb” was installed at the end of The Journey of Faith tour in 2022 and is one of John Howard Sanden’s final commissioned pieces. Sanden passed away at the age of 87 on December 24, 2022, but his legacy of faith and enormity of talent lives on through his art and will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.

“The Empty Tomb” – Mural painted in 2021 by John Howard Sanden

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