Nelson Shanks: Acclaimed portrait painter whose subjects included Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II

Shanks said portraiture’s role in the age of the selfie is 'to stop and smell the roses - there’s a whole world of meaning and depth behind the rush'

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The Independent Online

The painter Nelson Shanks was renowned for his portraits of prominent figures. His subjects included Princess Diana, Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and a group portrait of the first four women to serve on the US Supreme Court.

The artist and his Clinton portrait made waves earlier this year when he said he had included a subtle reference to White House intern Monica Lewinsky. 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, New York, and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, before studying architecture and then art in Kansas, New York and Florence. 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, saying 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,” he said. “I think history will prove it’s of no interest.”

He counted Princess Diana as one of his “dear friends” he said after her death in 1997. When asked to paint her portrait three years earlier, he was in the process of painting Margaret Thatcher, which he said “made for an interesting juxtaposition of images”.

Shanks said portraiture’s role in the age of the selfie is “to stop and smell the roses. There’s a whole world of meaning and depth behind the rush. And that’s what is worth exploring.”

Nelson Shanks, artist: born 23 December 1937; married (three daughters, one son); died 28 August 2015.

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