One of Philadelphia’s most prominent artists passed away last week. Nelson Shanks, a highly sought-after portrait painter, was 77 when he died of cancer on Friday.
Over his 60 year career as an artist, Shanks painted the portraits of political and cultural leaders around the world, including Pope John Paul II, presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, and opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
His subjects would sit for him for as many as 40 hours for a single portrait. Afterwards, many became close friends.
“I connect with people on a pretty great level — a very deep level when they pose for me,” said Shanks in a 2013 interview. “There’s something about self-examination that goes on between myself and sitters. I make a lot of life-time friends as a result of this procedure.”
In 2002, Shanks and his wife Leona founded a small art school — an atelier called Studio Incamminati — in a building in Philadelphia’s North Chinatown. They designed the school to be focused solely on figurative representational drawing and painting, when many art schools teach abstract and expressive styles.
“For him, creating art transcended to a spiritual experience, and an appreciation of nature. It was always nature that inspired his art,” said Leona Shanks. “Figurative representation was always his love. He felt there was a great hole. There’s not one location someone can go and get years of nonstop training with figurative representation. Arts schools today want to cover everything.”
Leona Shanks says the popularity of that classical style, born in ancient Greece, has ebbed and flowed for two millennia. She and Nelson wanted their school to be the visual art equivalent of the Curtis Institute, the music conservatory that regularly produces the best classical musicians in the world. The Curtis Institute is located in Rittenhouse Square, across town from Studio Incamminati.
One of the founding board members of the Studio Incamminati is Joseph Rishel, a senior curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who met Shanks in the 1960s when both were at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I don’t get all emotional about the thing: ‘Oh, drawing is over and we’re all going to die.’ But it’s nice there is room for this — albeit old fashioned — discipline,” said Rishel. “You can’t teach color — that has to be intuitive. But drawing can be taught. You can be good at it or bad at it, but you can do it with discipline and good coaching.”
Almost immediately after founding the school, Shanks was diagnosed with cancer. He and his wife created a board, which hired a president, which would maintain his ideology.
“My husband was diagnosed in 2003, and it went metastatic in 2009. We knew this day was coming and he did everything in his power to prepare,” said Leona. “He wanted Incamminati to last forever. Even the last two months, when he was so sick, there isn’t a day when we didn’t pour our hearts and minds into the school.”
Shanks will be buried in Philadelphia, at Lauren Hill West cemetery.