What inspires portrait painter Nelson Shanks?

One of Philadelphia’s most prominent philanthropists will have his picture painted this week by one of the country’s most prominent portrait artists.

H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest made a personal fortune in the cable television business, and has spent the last several years giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to projects he believes in.

Artist Nelson Shanks says that makes him visually interesting.

“What someone is inside does show on the outside,” said Shanks. “He’s a man of extraordinary character. This is something I really wanted to capture.”

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Shanks has painted the official portraits of Princess Diana, President Bill Clinton, and Pope John Paul II, among others. The staunch traditionalist does not use photographs — he paints only from life. High-profile subjects must sit in front of him for a dozen hours or more.

The three hour sitting with Lenfest on Wednesday evening is part of a demonstration of traditional figurative painting, which Shanks teaches at Studio Incamminati, an art school he founded north of Chinatown. He eschews most 20th century art movements, like abstract expressionism and conceptual art, as faddish and insignificant.

“I find photo-realism off-putting. It’s so far away from the way I see things,” said Shanks. “I don’t see things like a camera. Going straight to nature without that barrier in between — namely a photograph — is the way to go.”

Shanks rarely paints subjects in their own home, preferring a neutral place with good light. However, on Wednesday, Gerry Lenfest will be posing at Freeman’s Auction House on Chestnut Street under artificial lights.

The portrait is not a commissioned work, only a demonstration exercise. Shanks said he will present Lenfest with the resulting picture, all the same.

For more on the realist portraiture of Nelson Shanks, watch WHYY’s Friday Arts episode on Studio Incamminati.

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