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August 30, 2015

Famous local artist Nelson Shanks dies at 77

Was renowned for portraits of the pope, presidents, and royalty

Nelson Shanks, a highly regarded local portrait artist, died Friday, August 28, at the age of 77. 

Studio Incamminati, a Philadelphia art school that Shanks founded with his wife Leona, announced the news of his death. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he was a Bucks County resident and died at home from complications from cancer. 

Shanks gained recognition throughout his career for his depictions of several prominent figures. 

Most infamously, his portrait of Bill Clinton gained attention for subtly calling attention to the former president's controversial affair. 

The painting, finished in 2006 after Clinton chose him as the artist, contained a reference to Monica Lewinsky's blue dress, a key article of clothing in the investigation of the relationship between Clinton and the former White House intern, Shanks told the Philadelphia Daily News.

This April, 24, 2006, file photo shows former President Bill Clinton, left, looking up at his portrait after Lawrence M. Small, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, right, helped him remove the drape at the Smithsonian Castle Building in Washington. A Philadelphia artist says that his museum portrait of former President Clinton contains a shadow reference to Monica Lewinsky's infamous blue dress. Nelson Shanks tells the Philadelphia Daily News that a shadow beside Clinton is a literal reference to the dress and a symbolic nod to the shadow the affair cast on his presidency. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Shanks made the revelation pointing out the dress reference after he believed the painting was removed from the National Portrait Gallery because of pressure from the Clinton family, according to USA Today. 

Clinton's controversial portrait is not the only one of Shanks work to at one point hang in that gallery. In 2013, his painting of the first four female justices to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court was unveiled. 

A detail of Artist Nelson Shanks’ painting, “The Four Justices”, a 9-foot 6-inch by 7-foot 9-inch oil on canvas portrait of the first four female justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, top row, from left, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, bottom row, from left, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is seen during a press preview at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)

Shanks' opportunities to portray the likes of Princess Diana and Pope John Paul II allowed him to spend time with royalty and religious leaders. He was often praised by critics and chosen by his subjects for the incredible realism in his work. 

His lasting legacy in Philadelphia may be Studio Incamminati, School for Contemporary Realist Art. The school, located at 340 N. 12th St., was launched by Shanks 13 years ago and has produced nationally recognized artists as well as several art education programs in local high schools. 

He is survived by his wife, three daughters, a son, and four grandchildren, according to the Inquirer. Funeral arrangements are still pending, but memorial  donations can be sent to the school at Suite 400, 340 N. 12th St., Philadelphia, 19107.