Painting Diana

updated 10/03/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/03/1994 01:00AM

Shanks handles the famous with well-practiced tact

AMERICAN PAINTER NELSON Shanks, 56, a gentleman and an Anglophile, is 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 Shanks found himself line-blocking for Princess Diana last month 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. A longtime teacher and respected realist painter—of landscapes, still lifes and nudes—Shanks has in recent years become the foremost portraitist of the rich and the celebrated in America and Europe. 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."

Shanks, of course, who charges up to $200,000 for his portraits, is expert in the gentle handling of famous subjects. He painted Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1989—"a thoroughly nice man," says Shanks, who "was interested in looking 20 years younger than he did." Shanks has also done Queen Juliana of The Netherlands, King Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden, and Luciano Pavarotti, who plied the artist with pasta and opera tapes during sittings at the tenor's New York City apartment. Early this summer, Shanks had just accepted a commission to paint Thatcher when he was approached by a group of London art dealers—representing an anonymous underwriter—to do Diana. "Painting one of them one day and another the next," he says, "was a little awesome."

Born in Rochester, N.Y., the son of high school biology teacher John Shanks and his wife, Bernice, an amateur pianist, Shanks did his first oil painting at 5. After two years at the University of Kansas studying architecture, he enrolled at New York City's Art Students' League. Scholarships and grants financed further studies in Italy and France before he returned to the U.S. in 1962. Six years later he moved to artist-dense Bucks County, Pa. There he began taking on private students in addition to his part-time work at Manhattan's National Academy of Design and the Art Students' League. In 1991, two years after the Philadelphia Union League commissioned his Reagan portrait (which now hangs at their headquarters), Shanks gave up teaching for good.

When Shanks, his painter wife, Leona, 34, and their 9-month-old daughter, Annalisa, aren't on their annual jaunts to Europe, they live in a nine-bedroom Victorian home in Andalusia, Pa. Though famous for his larger-than-life nudes, Shanks these days does mostly portraits (François Mitterand is next). His painting of Diana will show 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 is completed, the portrait will likely be exhibited at several museums to raise money for Di's favorite charities and, he hopes, eventually find a home at London's National Portrait Gallery.

Shanks says 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, Shanks confessed that he'd like to do Prince Charles. "She smiled at that," said Shanks, "but I explained to her that he's got such wonderful coloring."

LOUISE LAGUE
JOHN WRIGHT in London

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