Nelson Shanks dies at 77, painter of presidents and royalty

Artist Nelson Shanks poses beneath his portrait of Pope John Paul II in 2002.

Artist Nelson Shanks poses beneath his portrait of Pope John Paul II in 2002.

(Associated Press)

Nelson Shanks, a painter renowned for his portraits of prominent figures ranging from presidents to a pope to royalty, has died at his home in Pennsylvania at the age of 77.

Shanks, who died Friday, painted well-known subjects such as Princess Diana, Pope John Paul II, Presidents Reagan and 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.

The artist and his Clinton portrait made waves this year when he told the Philadelphia Daily News that he included a subtle reference to White House intern 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.


Born in 1937 in Rochester, N.Y., he studied architecture and then art in Kansas and later in New York and Florence, Italy.

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.