Remembering Tom Donahue (1948-2012)

Tom Donahue in 1995. Photo by Murray Riss

Memphis artist Tom Donahue passed away this weekend at the age of 64. He was perhaps as well known for his extraordinarily skillful portrait painting as for being the older brother of Commercial Appeal columnist Michael Donahue. We profiled this talented man in our July 1995 issue. Here's what freelance writer Chris Haywood had to say about him then:

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You can learn a lot about a man from his answering machine and license plate. Memphis artist Tom Donahue has a trio of male offspring, and he paints portraits. You know this because his answering machine plays the familiar tune to the 1960s TV series My Three Sons, and his car license tag reads "PORTR8S."

But except for these clues, Donahue is a private fellow who doesn't like to talk much about the dignitaries, judges, civic leaders, family members, and corporate CEOs he painted during the last 22 years. Except for one.

"The most famous person I painted was Danny Thomas," says Donahue, who was commissioned by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in 1987 to paint the hospital's founder. "I flew to Beverly Hills and painted him in the foyer of his home."

Actually, it wasn't quite that easy. Donahue took photos and made several sketches of Thomas, then returned to his studio in Memphis to put paint to canvas. Rather than reconvene for a final sitting and sign-off, Donahue says Thomas just told him to "surprise me with it on stage," since the portrait would be unveiled later at a St. Jude function.

Donahue apparently earns that trust easily, and keeps mum about the people he paints. Have any clients wanted bumpy noses smoothed out or pot bellies compressed? He won't tell. "I'm all for flattery," he says. "I think everyone has a good side. It's up to the artist to bring it out."

His subjects must like what they see. Donahue earns from $7,000 to $12,000 per canvas. He's painted about 20 portraits alone for the Rhodes College Distinguished Faculty Portrait Series and spends about half his time on out-of-town assignments. In the South, he says he tends to paint families; up north, it's mostly CEOs and dignitaries.

A 1966 graduate of Christian Brothers High School, Donahue attended the University of Memphis before working as an artist for the House of Cruthirds, a company that designed commercial interiors. He taught portrait painting at Memphis College of Art during the late 1980s, but now depends solely on his talent and trustworthiness for his success.

Both have served him well. "I've never had a painting refused in 22 years," he says. "I've had to make changes at a client's request, but I've never had to walk away with one under my arm." — Chris Haywood

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“901” is the current affairs blog compiled by the staff of Memphis magazine, where readers can find breaking-news tidbits relating to all facets of life in the Bluff City. 

Edited by Shara Clark, Memphis magazine’s associate editor, this blog’s regular participants include long-time Memphis editors such as Michael Finger, Jackson Baker, Frank Murtaugh, and Kenneth Neill. “901” also includes regular contributions from Inside Memphis Business staffers Richard Alley and Eileen Townsend, as well as the staff of the Memphis Flyer.

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