Nelson Shanks, painter of presidents and royalty, dies at 77

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ANDALUSIA, Pa. (AP) — Nelson Shanks, a painter renowned for his portraits of prominent figures ranging from presidents to a pope to royalty, has died. He was 77.

Shanks died Friday at his home in Andsalusia, in Bucks County, according to Bill Wedo, spokesman for the Studio Incamminati art school Shanks founded with his wife, Leona.

Shanks painted well-known subjects such as Princess Diana, Pope John Paul II, presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and a group portrait of the first four women to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. He was called "the most talented contemporary traditional portraitist" by D. Dodge Thompson, chief of exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The artist and his Clinton portrait made waves earlier this year when he told the Philadelphia Daily News that he included a subtle reference to Monica Lewinsky in the work. He said a shadow beside Clinton is a literal reference to Lewinsky's infamous blue dress and a symbolic nod to the shadow the affair cast on his presidency.

Shanks was born in Rochester, N.Y., and raised from about age 10 in Wilmington, Del., before studying architecture and then art in Kansas and later in New York and Florence, Italy.

Although he taught at several art institutes, he launched the Studio Incamminati, School for Contemporary Realist Art in Center City Philadelphia in 2002 to teach figure-painting and other realist techniques, telling The Associated Press that year that he eschewed abstract art for its lack of standards and meaning.

"There's a lot of nonsense and charlatanism out there, the vast percentage of it. I think history will prove it's of no interest," Shanks said at his studio, a converted carriage house on his property.

In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2001, as he was working on Clinton's portrait, he spoke about his philosophy of portraying people on canvas.

"I try to push portraits as far as I can beyond the academic, traditional, straightforward boardroom style. I try to bring the art out," he said.

He counted Princess Diana as one of his "dear friends," he told The Associated Press after her death in 1997. When asked to paint her portrait three years earlier, he was in the process of painting Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which he said "made for an interesting juxtaposition of images."

Shanks is survived by his wife, daughters Renee Hofferman, Jennifer Shanks and Annalisa Shanks, and son Alexander Shanks, a student at the school. A memorial service is planned in the coming weeks, Wedo said.

Shanks told the Daily News in March that he believed portraiture's role in the age of the selfie was "to stop and smell the roses."

"There's a whole world of meaning and depth behind the rush," he said. "And that's what is worth exploring."

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