Saturday, January 9, 2010


With a background in academic art training that he “pieced together” from various teachers and sources, both in US and in Europe, Nelson Shanks has established himself not only as one one of the country’s premiere portrait painters, but also as one of the major proponents of classical realism.
Nelson Shanks, along with his wife Leona Shanks, is the founder of Studio Incamminati, an atelier style teaching program in Philadelphia, which focuses on the principles of classical realism. Nelson's commissioned portraits include such notable figures as former presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Regan, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, King Gustav and Queen Silvia of Sweden, Queen Julianna of the Netherlands, Luciano Pavarotti and numerous CEOs and chairmen of boards, including those of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Times.
(Charley Parker at lines and colors)

Bill Jefferson Clinton
Oil on canvas, 2005
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Bill Jefferson Clinton (detail)
From afagen's photostream

It seems a leap of faith to have one's portrait painted, to surrender one's own version of reality to someone else's -- particularly if one happens to be a politician. Good politicians, after all, are masters at managing how the world sees them.
So, when the National Portrait Gallery unveiled portraits of Bill Clinton (above), there was the former president, looking energetic and expressive, laughing or jutting out his lower lip, flanked by the portrait president, standing in the Oval Office, looking flat and tired. It turns out three-dimensionality suits Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton joked that he was worried when he found out his portrait would be almost eight feet high. Judging from the White House's collection of presidential portraits, he said, the size of past presidents' portraits seems to indicate "an almost inverse relationship to their importance to the country."
The public got the chance to see the portrait in July 2006, when the National Portrait Gallery's six-year renovation was completed and it reopened in the Old Patent Office Building. The museum houses the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.
(Libby Copeland, Washington Post Staff Writer, Tuesday, April 25, 2006)

Ronald Reagan
Oil on canvas,
Private collection
From ARC

Princess Diana
Oil on canvas
Painted at Tite Street Studio
(formally owned by John Singer Sargent)
Collection of Charles, Ninth Earl Spencer
From ARC

"Before sittings began, Nelson assumed that they would take place in Kensington Palace, where the Princess lives. A friend had offered him the use of a studio in Chelsea, and, he recalls, "I gave her the option, and she said, 'Oh, let's do it there. I'd love to get out of here.'" (John Singer Sargent, Sixth Earl Spencer, Great Uncle of Princess Diana)
(TIME International, April 22, 1996 Volume 147, No. 17)
A gentleman and an Anglophile, Nelson was the first to admit that he moves in a circumscribed, genteel world of "my entourage, my interests, my students, the people I talk to." Consider his shock, therefore, when Nelson found himself line-blocking for Princess Diana as a posse of paparazzi surrounded them after their dinner together in a London restaurant. "The poor girl tried to get into her car, but they literally had their cameras jammed on the windshield. I had to get between them and Diana, but it was really a form of violence. The press," he says, "are vile." Shanks has had to put up with such indignities since word got out that he was doing a portrait of the princess in his borrowed London studio. He had just put the finishing touches on a likeness of Margaret Thatcher—while simultaneously working on his portrait of Diana—when the scandal erupted over the princess's peculiar phone-calling habits. The press pack quickly bayed its way to his door, but Shanks managed to provide a sanctum of serenity for Di during her final sittings. "Obviously my job is to be sensitive and bring out what I believe the person to be," he says. "She's kind and has not a streak of malevolence."
His painting of Diana showed her in a white organdy blouse and green taffeta skirt, standing before an open door to symbolize "the change in direction that her life is taking," he says. After it was completed, the portrait was exhibited at several museums to raise money for Di's favorite charities and, he hoped, eventually find a home at London's National Portrait Gallery.
Nelson said he was more intrigued by Diana's "magnificent points"—her eyes, huge lashes and sculpted oval-shaped face—than by the imbroglio over her purported calls to art dealer Oliver Hoare ("She said it was nonsense"). But he is clearly a master at negotiating the minefield of the high-strung Diana's emotions. When Di asked who else he would like to paint in Britain, Nelson confessed that he'd like to do Prince Charles. "She smiled at that," said Nelson, "but I explained to her that he's got such wonderful coloring."
(LOUISE LAGUE, JOHN WRIGHT in London at People)

33 Tite Street
Oil on canvas
Private collection
From ARC

Luciano Pavarotti
Oil on canvas,
Private collection
From ARC

Self Portrait by Leona Shanks
Oil on Linen
From American Red Cross of Central New Jersey

Nelson, and his wife Leona Shanks (above), founded Studio Incamminati to provide a place where artists devoted to realism could study painting and acquire other skills necessary for successful artistic careers.
When Nelson set out to become a painter, he pieced together his own education and training from the limited options available for the study of realist painting. As an 18-year-old student at New York’s famed Art Students League, he earned his tuition by serving as a monitor in the classes of artists such as Robert Brackman, Ivan Olinsky and Edwin Dickinson. Established painters such as John Koch took him on as a private student and provided substantial material as well as spiritual support of his dreams and aspirations.
His own remarkable progress soon earned him grants, including the most prestigious grants made to realist artists: the Greenshields Foundation (twice) and the Stacey Foundation (three times), that enabled him to study in Florence with the legendary Pietro Annigoni and at the Accademia di Belle Arti.
European education completed, teaching positions took Nelson to Memphis, Chicago and then to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he has maintained a studio for more than three decades. Nelson has taught on the faculty of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League, National Academy of Design, The George Washington University, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, among others. He also established an apprentice program at his Bucks County home and studio, where artists received room, board and instruction at no cost.
As was well understood from the Renaissance forward, it takes years of concentration and practice to become a highly skilled painter. Throughout his career, Nelson has painted nearly every day of the year—landscape, still life, the figure, and portraits. He takes pride in setting his own goals to grow and improve with every painting.
(Natasha Wallace at

Oil on canvas
Private collection
From ARC

Tweedle Dee
Oil on canvas
Private collection
From ARC

The Recital
African-American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves
National Portrait Gallery
From Andy961's photostream at flickr

Blue Kimono II
Oil on Canvas
From American Red Cross of Central New Jersey

It is common knowledge in the art community that Nelson Shanks is an avid collector. Chelwood, Nelson's 19th century French Italianate Manor home, is virtually a museum of important Renaissance paintings and sculpture. One of his most treasured pieces is the Madonna and Child with Saints Lucy, Dominic, and Louis by Annibale Carracci. Nelson adores the painting, but more importantly, Carracci's artistic ideologies offered Nelson special inspiration.
In 1589, Annibale Carracci, along with his uncle and cousin, opened the Academia delgi Incaminati, later called the "School of the Eclectics" and the "School of Carracci." Their objective was to "revive" art in the manner of the great masters. Numerous important figures in 17th century painting learned their principles of drawing, painting and printmaking from the Carracci family tutelage, which was steeped in art theory and practice.
According to Nelson, "Over four centuries ago the Academia degli Incaminati was formed in response to absurd excesses in the art world and today again we respond to the same need in an effort to reconnect to the depth of purpose of great art." Nelson has been tireless in his crusade to redirect modern art, campaigning for a movement towards what he calls "Progressive Realism." Progressive Realism is art inspired by classical principles and modern dynamism where skilled technique meets contemporary form and color. To teach these ideals, Nelson Shanks has opened his own school of the arts, inspired by the spirit of Carracci's Academia, that will offer a structured approach to teaching progressive realist painting. Shanks named the school Incaminati: Studies in Realist Art, and they opened the doors October 1, 2002 with 30 outstanding students from around the world.
(Jennifer Hebblethwaite at ASOPA)
His work has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Kensington Palace in London, and Fortezza Firmafede in Sarzana, Italy.
In 2006, Governor Edward G. Rendell presented Nelson with the Governor’s Distinguished Arts Award, which recognizes a Pennsylvania artist of international fame or renown whose creations and contributions enrich the Commonwealth. Among those contributions noted were his lifelong commitment to teaching and his establishment of Studio Incamminati.
(Natasha Wallace at
Nelsomn was awarded the Portrait Society of America’s gold medal for lifetime achievement. He received the award at the society’s 11th annual The Art of the Portrait Conference in Reston, Va., during the banquet and awards presentation.
The event was an annual celebration of excellence in portraiture and figurative art, with more than 800 artists, agents and manufacturers attending each year to participate in panel discussions, lectures, workshops and portfolio sharing.
The gold medal award is given annually during the conference to individuals who have made a major contribution to the world of portraiture and are at the top of their field. The actual medal is 3 inches in diameter and gilded in 24-karat gold.
Previous recipients include Harvey Dinnerstein, Andrew Wyeth and Richard Schmid.
Nelson said, “I’m honored to receive the Portrait Society of America’s gold medal. We must all strive to achieve the highest standard in painting and the portrait as fine art.”
(Courier Times Now)

A portrait painting demonstration by Nelson Shanks
Institute of Classical Architechture & Classical America

Demo given by Nelson Shanks
Studio Incominati
Images from

Nelson Shanks and Virgil
Studio Incamminati, Philadelphia, 2008
Photo by Roseanne Peters
From The Atelier of Virgil Elliott


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