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Nelson Shanks, renowned portrait artist, dead at 77

Nelson Shanks, 77, of Andalusia, Bucks County, a renowned portrait painter, art historian and teacher, who depicted subjects including Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton with what critics called a peerless realism, died Friday.

Nelson Shanks
Nelson ShanksRead moreLa Shinda Clark / Inquirer file

Nelson Shanks, 77, of Andalusia, Bucks County, a renowned painter, art historian and teacher, who depicted subjects including Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton with what critics called a peerless realism, died at home late Friday of complications from cancer.

In a career that spanned 60 years, Shanks is perhaps best known for his portraits of international luminaries including Diana, Princess of Wales, President Ronald Reagan and tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

Mr. Shanks infused his portraits with what he called "humanist realism," painting his subjects with an exacting verisimilitude. He was instrumental in the revival of the classical realism style of painting.

"I try to push portraits as far as I can beyond the academic, traditional, straightforward boardroom style," Mr. Shanks said in a 2001 interview. "I try to bring the art out.

D. Dodge Thompson, chief of exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has called Mr. Shanks "the most talented contemporary traditional portraitist."

But Mr. Shanks preferred to be called a "painter," to highlight his varied subject matter, leaving out the focus on portraiture.

It's "both flattering and demeaning," Mr. Shanks said of the term "portrait painter," because "there are so many bad ones."

Mr. Shanks commissions hang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Kensington Palace in London and the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. His work has been exhibited at museums including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

In 2001, President Clinton selected Mr. Shanks to paint his portrait for National Portrait Gallery's Hall of Presidents collection.

Mr. Shanks said Clinton seemed nervous during his sitting, and described the former president as "probably the most famous liar of all time," in an a Daily News interview published earlier this year. The Clinton administration had done good things for the nation, Mr. Shanks said, but the artist couldn't get over the Monica Lewinsky controversy.

Mr. Shanks included a subtle reference to the intern in the Clinton portrait: a shadow cast on the Oval Office mantle which Shanks said partially represents Lewinsky's famous blue dress.

The Clinton painting was Mr. Shanks' second presidential portrait. He painted President Ronald Reagan in a portrait that hangs in the Union League. In 2006, the league opened its doors to the public for the first time in over 100 years for an exhibit of Mr. Shanks' work.

Four years earlier, the artist's portrait of Pope John Paul II was unveiled at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Center City. Mr. Shanks met the pope twice, but relied on photographs for his depiction of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who the artist said left him awestruck.

Mr. Shanks described the process of portraiture as a shedding of pretense that can lead to a closeness between artist and subject.

When Mr. Shanks painted Princess Diana, she was being hounded by the British press. Mr. Shanks included her emotions in his interpretation, painting the princess as sad and introspective, he said an interview with the Daily News.

"I had the opportunity to be her defender and her champion and we became very, very fast friends..." Mr. Shanks said in a 2014 interview in The Inquirer.

Born in Rochester, Ny., Mr. Shanks spent most of his childhood in Wilmington. He began painting as a youngster when his father gave him a painting set.

At 18, Mr. Shanks enrolled in the Art Students League in New York where he earned tuition by serving as a monitor in classes of artists such as Robert Brackman and Ivan Olinsky. He studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and the National Academy of Design.

Mr. Shanks studied in Florence and later began a teaching career that included faculty posts at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League, the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

In Oct. 2002, Mr. Shanks and his wife Leona, who is also an artist, founded Studio Incamminati, School for Contemporary Realist Art, near 12th and Callowhill Streets. The school evolved out of a series of successful workshops offered by the couple in response to a need for serious art instruction.

The Shanks also developed an apprentice program at their Bucks County home and studio where artists received room, board and instruction.

Shanks has been honored by the American Society of Portrait Artists, the Portrait Society of America, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

"I don't know who I could think of who had more of a passion for painting and art than Nelson," said Jay Pennie, president of Studio Incamminati. "If he could paint 24 hours a day he would have."

In addition to his wife Leona, Mr. Shanks is survived by daughters Renee Hofferman, Annalisa Shanks, Jennifer Shanks and son Alexander Shanks; and four grancdhildren.

Arrangements are pending.