Thursday, March 12, 2015


Over the last two weeks we've discussed "unschooled" art, which abandons technical skill in favor of a naive, primitive look.   We debated the continuing relevance of "skill" in today's art world, and the challenge of distinguishing "loose and spontaneous" art which is good, from "sloppy and lazy" art, which is bad.

During that discussion a number of commenters reminded us that "skill" has its own pitfalls-- art can be technically skillful yet hollow and insubstantial.

That's probably a good opening to talk about Nelson Shanks

Shanks is one of the most sought after portrait painters in the world, as he will readily tell you. (His web site describes him as a "world-renowned painter, art historian, art teacher, connoisseur and collector [with a] lifelong... devotion to fine arts." ) He is the darling of the Art Renewal Center which, in the overheated rhetoric of its Chairman, blames the success of unskilled art on a "conspiracy... to malign and degrade the reputations" of traditional artists using "pathetic lies and distortions." 

Few would question Shanks' technical virtuosity, but I confess I find much of his work uninspiring.

Shanks is one of the most literal painters around today.  There doesn't seem to be a square inch of ambiguity in his work.  Any mystery comes from his arrangement of odd objects and symbols, which  all seem to be painted realistically in the same fanatical detail.

Even a camera seems to do more prioritizing than Shanks.  A photograph's depth of field at least puts some elements in sharper focus than others.  But in these paintings by Shanks, every element has the same high definition sharpness, right down to the complex patterns on fabric.  Shanks is undiscriminating; the elements which might play a supporting role receive the same explicit treatment as elements which should be given priority.  And don't look for economy in these paintings.  Don't look for suggestion or openness or playfulness or vitality either.   

Personally, I find more art (and more humanity) in the work of other traditional realists such as Burt SilvermanJeremy Lipking or Adrian Gottlieb.
Shanks fans tout the symbolism in his paintings.  For example, in this portrait of Princess Diana, the composition is supposed to symbolize her isolation and loneliness. 

To me, this heavy handed symbolism places Shanks in the same category as romance cover painter Elaine Duillo, who shares Shanks' technical skill but got paid a lot less due to class and gender biases.

Last week Shanks created a stir by revealing to the press that in his 2006 portrait of President Clinton for the National Portrait Gallery he hid the shadow of the Monica Lewinsky scandal:

Shanks said, "It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there. It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him." Shanks called Clinton "the most famous liar of all time."

If Shanks had turned down a prestigious presidential assignment because Shanks disapproved of the President, he would've been a profile in courage.  Or if Shanks had warned the National Portrait Gallery that he was not painting the statesman-like image they wanted, he would have been an artist of principle.  Even if he had kept his hidden symbols secret, he would've been no worse than other rascal artists before him.  But he did none of these things. 

When Shanks auditioned for the job, he lied: "I need to be fairly straightforward. I'll just try to paint the man, his intelligence, his amiability and his stature, maybe paint him fairly close to humor and try to get it just right."  He won the commission by traveling to Washington and presenting his portfolio of respectful portraits to Clinton.  After winning the first phase, he was required to present a preliminary sketch for approval.  (His sketch obviously did not include the now infamous shadow).  He did not reveal what he was up to until the painting had been unveiled to the public and was hanging prominently in the National Portrait Gallery. Then, Shanks went to the press to brag about how he had duped his client.  Later, he had the temerity to complain that his painting was not getting enough exhibition time, probably  due to pressure from the Clintons.
As far as I'm concerned, the example of Nelson Shanks offers us not one but two important lessons about technical skill: 
  1. Technical skill is no guarantee of artistic quality
  2. Technical skill is no guarantee that an artist is not a jackass


Larry said...

I have to admit, I never understood why a princess, prime minister or president would choose him as a portraitist, considering all his subjects look like they've led long lives of breaking rocks and heavy lifting, replete with gnarled knuckles, red noses, sinewy muscles and bulging veins. Maybe they wanted to be portrayed as common folk, to connect with the people, but regardless, it's obvious that flattery is not Mr. Shanks strong suit. Not to say he's not a great painter and craftsman. I paid to see him demonstrate and loved looking at his originals. But he should confine his opinions to his fine art. which after this revaluation, he should have a lot of free time to devote to.

MORAN said...

Shanks has s big rep because companies like his realistic paintings because their easy to understand. He's not much of a real artist.

Anonymous said...

In the Princess Diana portrait there is also a shadow on the pilaster....cast by Camilla Parker Bowles perhaps?

Seriously though, no qualms about Shank's haughtiness but I thought you liked your political art all full of biting satire and scorn, David. Of course, not that it's any mystery where your political persuasions lie.

Anonymous said...

Few are aware that Shank's paints under an alias - BORIS !

David Apatoff said...

Larry-- I've only seen a few Shanks originals, would love to see more. His recent humongous group portrait of the four female Supreme Court justices is ghastly in person, in just the way you describe. However, it seems to me that Shanks has done some very flattering portraits. The Pope, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana and Ronald Reagan all seem to have received the regal treatment, judging by the reproductions.

Did you find a significant difference between the portraits and the "fine art" paintings?

MORAN-- It is true that Shanks is a popular and safe (at least, until now) choice for boards of directors, prestigious universities, and CEOs who prefer literal art.

etc, etc-- A number of apologists for Shanks (I'm not suggesting you're one) have tried to dismiss the current criticism as politically motivated and I think it's important to keep the issue clean. I would have loved to see Shanks paint a biting satire of Clinton, just as I have applauded Tom Fluharty's vicious portraits of Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama on this blog. But Shanks did something very different. As far as I can tell, he obtained an important commission under false pretenses, accepted payment for a product that he knew his client didn't want, and then grabbed a lot of publicity for himself at the expense of the National Portrait Gallery. I think such behavior can be evaluated without regard to politics.

As for haughtiness-- it's a common trait in the arts. Personally, I don't think Shanks' self-image is warranted but I know a great many people disagree with me on that. There's no disputing that he is wildly successful. But I think his haughtiness persuaded him that his personal political views were more important than the interests of the Museum that was his client or the person who was his subject. No one would care about his views if he hadn't piggybacked on his client and subject.

But I do think your great theory about the Princess Diana painting is probably correct.

larry said...

Could you imagine Sargent painting hands like this on a princess.
On the subject of his originals, I liked his small sketches much more than his finished work, but that's not uncommon.

James Gurney said...

David, could you explain more about the logistics of the commissions for the National Portrait Gallery? Who approves the artist—is it the subject or the Museum? Who pays the artist? Is it public money? And as there are presumably multiple portraits of each president in the collection, who decides which one is on view?

On the official NPG website is the story of the Peter Hurd portrait of Lyndon Johnson, which was "meant to be Johnson's official White House likeness. But that plan was quickly scrapped after Johnson declared it 'the ugliest thing I ever saw.' Soon the pun was making the rounds in Washington that 'artists should be seen around the White House--but not Hurd.'"

larry said...

Have a look<a at Thatcher's hands.

David Apatoff said...

James Gurney-- Nelson Shanks' web site has an interesting article about how the Portrait Gallery paintings are commissioned ( ) Apparently the White House believes that its portrait is the one official version but the National Portrait Gallery thinks the situation is a little more ambiguous
than that.

I'd heard that story about LBJ and I wasn't surprised. Bernie Fuchs painted a portrait of Kennedy, who was delighted with the picture and very gracious with his praise. So naturally they invited Bernie back to paint LBJ after he became president. But LBJ had a sour reaction and brushed Bernie off without a word. Bernie was crushed, and as soon as LBJ left the room his aides rushed over to assure Bernie that LBJ liked it, he just wasn't a very demonstrative person. (Apparently they spent a lot of time reassuring people who'd had their feelings hurt by LBJ). LBJ gave the painting away to the Women's Democratic Club. Later Bernie heard that LBJ hated it because it showed LBJ with his glasses in his hand, and LBJ didn't like to emphasize that he wore glasses.

Anonymous-- You know, you're not that far off.

larry-- I agree with you about Sargent's hands, perhaps because he was more stylized and perhaps because Sargent recognized a point of diminishing returns that Shanks failed to recognize when it came to painting bumps and lumps and warts. Apparently Shanks never met a detail he didn't like.

Unknown said...

Shanks displays a fantastic ability to replicate something in paint, but no taste in distilling detail or choosing a focus, let alone in telling a story. The result is a finely rendered yet vacuous and boring rendition of something that would arguably have been more interesting if left to a photographer. Snore.

Aleš said...

Horrible stuff, dull, empty, frozen in moment, lack of spirit and atmosphere, no character behind the faces, there is a prevailing unpleasant tension in some of the images because nothing is well harmonized, I sense no charisma, no energy, there is a distressing lack of life and vitality everywhere. This kind of art should be sold with a prescription for antidepressants.

chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D.O.Jones said...

"Shanks never met a detail he didn't like"

While I share the same negative reaction to many of Shanks' paintings that has been expressed here - I wonder how much of the failing in his love of detail?

I do not have a similar reaction when looking at the paintings of Charles Bargue, or any of the other highly detailed paintings of the late nineteenth century. They are not my favorite artists either, but I think they show that you can paint exacting detail with greater taste and refinement than Shanks often exhibits.

chris bennett said...

Looking at these frigid and vulgar monstrosities gave me a leaden feeling of spiritual claustrophobia. Sterile, stuffy and artless, they lacked any trace whatsoever of what characterises good painting. And its absence seemed responsible for the suffocating effect of these pictures. And thinking about this, the paintings of Morandi sprang to mind.

Paradoxically, Morandi’s pictures of a few dusty containers on a plain table, the austere still lives that comprised the majority of his oeuvre, might be thought of as artistically claustrophobic. But in almost every one of these marvellous paintings the world at large radiates from, and suffuses into, their surfaces; the morning mist of a grey pitcher, the mindless midday sky on a blue box, the nocturne of an indigo wine bottle. They, like all good art, are a looking-glass through which we pass into a reality re-imagined.

Shanks’ pictures, like all bad art, feel more obdurate than the wall on which they hang. And thinking about Shanks and Morandi, so their work is the reflection of the men themselves.

David Apatoff said...

Greg Newbold and Ales-- Shanks is so acclaimed, I expected to take a real beating in these comments.

The Chief Exhibitionist at The National Gallery of Art, D. Dodge Thompson, called Shanks "the most talented contemporary traditionalist portraitist." The Russian Academy made Shanks an honorary member for his "transcendent work" and contributions to culture. He was awarded the "Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement" by the Portrait Society of America. I read these remarks and rubbed my eyes and wondered if these people were seeing the same art that I was seeing. I may be crazy, but it's nice to know that there are at least three of us.

D.O. Jones-- I agree with you about Charles Bargue. I also agree that Shanks is a lover detail. If he admitted to being that and no more, I suppose I would find it endearing. But he stakes a claim to so much more; Shanks proclaims, "The Realist painting must be nothing less than a meditation on the nature of existence and the individual. It must create likeness with the power to kindle the observer's imagination and awaken memories... It must encompass all that the Realist painter sees before his eyes and therefore feels in his heart."

Anonymous said...


Perhaps my personality profiling of him is wrong, but I think of Shanks as a portrait painter whose lust for glory drives him into a strange, idiosyncratic quirkiness. When he finds it within himself to turn the "quirkiness" knob down a bit he is a fine portrait painter; among the very best living in fact, although there certainly are portraitists who are more consistent. But I'll give it to you that you did manage to sniff out some of his weaker works here.

Anonymous said...

About ten years ago a detail of a Shanks portrait was on the cover of American Artist magazine. While I was studying it my wife looked over my shoulder to see what I was so interested in. Immediately she let out a "ugh". I was surprised at her reaction and said, "what's the matter"? She then quickly pointed to the cover and yanked her finger back as though she might catch something if she actually touched the magazine. Her exact words, "that's hideous". I said what are you talking about? She described the subject's hand as having purple and green worms crawling around under the skin. She looked at the portraits inside including Thatcher's and said it looked like the artist always used the same hand model.

Anonymous said...

They remind me of wax sculptures, odd, lifeless, and sometimes disturbing.

Laurence John said...

i'm also getting the 'waxwork' vibe from these paintings.

a realistic surface is never enough to achieve 'life-like'. figure paintings and portraits must also contain believable hand gestures, facial expressions and body postures if they're not to resemble propped-up corpses. and i don't mean 'realistically detailed' when i say 'believable' either. (the one of R.O. Wilson is particularly bad. he looks like a badly posed dummy. will he move ? will he not ? is he alive ?).

they've actually strayed into 'uncanny valley' territory, which is normally the preserve of CGI animation, but kudos to Shanks for proving that painting can go there too.

Tom said...

Wow, David I have never seen so much agreement in your comment section, following one of your posts!

Anonymous said...

Despite my wife's and many other's objections to the way Shanks paints hands (which I agree with to a lesser degree.)I really appreciate the way Shanks paints human flesh. I think it is often masterful.

I am looking at the cover of The Artist's Magazine of April 2004 and the close up of what I believe is a non-commissioned painting appears to be rendered with much more sensitivity than the American Artist cover from a year earlier. It may be reproduction quality or the difference between a commissioned portrait and a painting of an artist's chosen model or a lot of other things but I think it is a convincing depiction of a personality. A real sense of a person beautifully done. The edges of cast shadows on her face have a romantic softness. The flesh tones are of a broad range of hues in perfect temperature and values. The painting is titled "Mary" and I consider it to be one of the most graceful portraits I've seen in print.

Anon from 8:59 am

Anonymous said...

I have criticism of some of Shanks work that I believe is more objective. The Clinton portrait is wrong in the area of perspective. Clinton's feet are not in the same perspective as the floor. We should be looking down on them. Areas of the fire place are also not aligned in correct perspective and the column on the right side of the fire place is of the wrong ellipse and not centered on it's base which would be very unlikely.

After the unveiling a few years ago many commented on the frumpy clothing and one critic referred to the shoes as being "Jed Clampetts" but I've never read anything about the perspective being so off. The problems of perspective in the portrait of John Paul II are so much worse. Everything in that background is wrong. It was shocking. Bernini's window, the baldacchino, the apse etc. is simply the wrong scale, wrong perspective and wrong placement. The design on the Pope's miter is also way off. The design is centered but Shanks has it way out of whack and considering the miter tapers to a point it should have been relatively easy to accurately paint.

Anon 8:59

Anonymous said...

Anon from 9:08 -- you might find it interesting that the billionaire, Leslie Wexner refused to accept delivery of a family portrait by Shanks. He was quoted in the press describing it as " inherently impersonal, inaccurate and disturbing painting"

Shanks sued Wexner for $399,000. Included as defendants in the lawsuit are close Clinton friends, Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.

Epstein has been in the news recently facing allegations of sexual acts with minors at his island mansion and Maxwell's been accused of making arrangements for the acts. She is also the founder and head of non profit funded by the Clinton Foundation.

It is interesting that Shank's announcement about the shadow comes at the same time convicted sexual predator Epstein is facing new allegations and Maxwell is facing accusations for setting things up. I don't know if Shanks' case has been settled but if he was stiffed of $400,000. by Clinton's friends his jab might have more reason behind it than his panning not getting enough hang time at the National Portrait Gallery.

Anon from 8:59

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- It would not have occurred to me to contrast Shanks with Morandi, but it's a very intriguing comparison.

It took me a while to appreciate Morandi's strength because when I was a kid I was initially impressed by detailed realism.(I remember reading a quote from Milton Glaser about Morandi, which I'll paraphrase as, "He worked in silence and built monuments.") Morandi's style would not be suitable for Shanks' celebrity portraits. I doubt the Clintons would like Morandi's effort at a likeness any more than they like Shanks'.

But as a purely artistic contrast, the two artists make the point vividly. Morandi powerfully demonstrates the silliness of all those fussy details, such as the designs on all the folded fabrics. Putting the two side by side on a wall, Shanks looks like he puts a whole lot of effort into superficial things, effort that would have been better spent contemplating the depth of the reality. Yet Shanks is the one who announces to the press that his paintings are "a meditation on the nature of existence." Morandi keeps his mouth shut and actually meditates on the nature of existence. The difference is right there in art.

Anonymous said...

Shanks has acquaintances who lobby for commissions. They usually have long arms to the investors whom pay the outrageous fees that Shanks tries to charge. The same person who commissioned Clinton's portrait recently commissioned the one of the Supreme Court Justices. Shanks has a good buddy that work's at NPG. This person is the one who once lobbied for Shanks. Shanks made up the BS about the Clinton portrait to get attention, it's sour grapes. He was unhappy that the portrait he did had been taken down. Shanks seems to be a very disturbed man who thrives on attention, regardless of truths! His followers have made him much more than what he is! When was the last time a painting by Shanks has sold? No one in their right mind will want to buy anything done by him now! Who knows what he has hidden in his other paintings! Nelson Shanks is the king of bullshit, especially when it is about him!

Anonymous said...

Anon --4:06
I initially thought the shadow being from a blue dress might be B.S also but USA Today dug out photos taken of Shanks' set up when he was working on the painting years ago and he clearly had a blue dress hanging up casting a shadow on the faux mantel he reconstructed in his studio. USA TODAY posted the photos online.

Anon -- 8:59am

Anonymouse said...

Let's not forget David Kassan. He sucks too.

David Apatoff said...

etc, etc wrote "I'll give it to you that you did manage to sniff out some of his weaker works here."

My goal wasn't to snipe at Shanks for a few stumbles, just as I wasn't trying to snipe at Barry Blitt for a single off day making a New Yorker cover with little technical skill (the opposite problem from Shanks). Every artist has bad days. But in the case of Shanks, there was no shortage of works in this category. I inspected his original painting of the four female Supreme Court justices-- one of his largest, most important recent paintings-- and thought it was highly unimpressive. The same thing with his highly publicized nude of Marisa Tomei.

Can you point me to examples of his work that you believe place him "among the very best living portrait painters?" The paintings I liked best were his quick studies and his early work.

Anonymous 8:59-- There seems to be a lot of focus on Shanks' hands which, until now, escaped my attention. I suppose if an artist loves detail and gets pleasure from capturing them, there's a risk he will over emphasize them, creating the effect we see in these hands.

Laurence John and Anonymous 9:08-- I've seen Shanks achieve very realistic looking flesh tones before, but I agree he does not give life to facial expressions and body language the way that top portrait painters do. Whatever one concludes about the morality of that Clinton painting, the figure seems stiff and unbalanced to me.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous 8:59-- I've been giving Shanks the benefit of the doubt on technical skill, treating his skill as an established fact and wondering whether skill without more was enough. But you (and some artists who have written me privately) have suggested that my initial assumption was wrong.

Tom-- I noticed the same thing, and I have to admit I was very surprised by the response. I was all set to be clobbered.

Anon from 8:59 wrote: "Shanks sued Wexner for $399,000. Included as defendants in the lawsuit are close Clinton friends, Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. Epstein has been in the news recently facing allegations of sexual acts with minors...."

I don't know which is more shocking-- that a client of Shanks has sex with a minor or that Shanks charges $400,000 for a painting.

Anonymous said...

Can you point me to examples of his work that you believe place him "among the very best living portrait painters?"

Oh come on now, David; you're inviting me to waste my time. The goons are in attack mode, and even you are back peddling from the more balanced sentiments you expressed earlier.

Unknown said...

No David, you are not alone. The problem I have with a lot of the atelier trained realist painters is the tendency to simply show off their ability to replicate an object in paint without injecting any life into it. It's like an academic painting pissing contest of "Hey, look how real I can make this look!" with someone else yelling " Oh yea? well I can paint every freaking pore on this guy's skin!". What gets lost is the feeling. I find such a lack of emotion in the work of Shanks and the like, that I just tune it out. I have the same reaction as the wife in the above comment. "Ugh, that's horrible" despite the fact that there is an obvious display of technical facility with paint and drawing. It's just too sterile. I would much rather see paint strokes and bravado, lost and found edges and a little distortion of anatomy when useful in order to convey an emotion or tell a story. Guys like N.C. Wyeth knew how to do this despite not having always nailed down the anatomy. I never cared because there is so much honesty in the way that Wyeth painted. In today's world I would much rather look at the work of a guy like Steve Huston than Nelson Shanks any day. I could care less who "lauds and honors" Shanks. I expect in 100 years or so, his work will be regarded about one step above that of Thomas Kinkade.

Anonymous said...

C'mon etc - you can't "waste time " to type a few painting titles after all the time David has spent / wasted on answering some of your posts ?

Anonymous said...


This is a free exchange of ideas amongst (hopefully) mature adults, none of whom are under any obligation whatsoever. Capisce?

David Apatoff said...

etc, etc-- Well, I admit I'm surprised by the similarity of opinions here. I'm not sure they amount to goons in the attack mode, but even if they are, I figure, "heck, what can they do to me?" so let me offer a couple of possible answers to my own question.

I tend to like Shanks' sketches more than his finished paintings, his figure paintings and still lives more than his celebrity portraits, and his early work much more than his later work. (Somewhere around here I have an old brochure of his work from 40 years ago, with work that I thought was really good-- far more free and experimental, and more sensitive to the effects of light. In fact, does anyone know where I can find his early work from the 70s on line?) All you can find on line these days are his celebrity pictures and his overworked "fine art" pictures. But here are a couple of suggestions: I think he exhibits a nice soft touch in paintings such as this: . in still lives such as the following, I think his obsession with detail is at least offset by large empty sections as well as a strong, high contrast composition which survives all that minutiae which normally nibbles away at his compositions. . Not a work of genius, but at least the palette is under control.

As for your point that I am "back peddling from the more balanced sentiments [I] expressed earlier," I do my best not to be a "goon" here and when I slip into that mode I depend upon my vigilant and outspoken commenters to smack me around for it. If my tone seems to have evolved over the past few days, perhaps its because I see the comments mounting up on other art sites, asserting conventional wisdom that Shanks is beyond challenge. For example, on Brian Sherwin's blog The Art Edge ( ) he writes: "Frankly, anyone who suggests that Shanks is a 'horrible painter', 'unskilled painter' or 'untalented' doesn't know a lick about the painting traditions he upholds -- those of you who uphold those same traditions should be concerned. As noted earlier, Shanks is considered one of the foremost contemporary figurative painters in the United States at this time. He has been credited as an influential figure in the revival of classical realism. I would argue that an attack on his skill as a painter is an attack on that revival." Unlike Sherwin and many of his readers, I don't regard Shanks as the personification of classical realism. I think he's a very skillful painter To the contrary, but classical realism is so much more than that, I think classical realism needs to be defended FROM him. As I saw all those comments from people who don't think it's necessary to look beyond Shanks' reputation, I suppose I felt the need to push back a little more.

David Apatoff said...

etc, etc-- looks like we just crossed in the mail, sorry. Putting aside your own choices, any reaction to mine?

chris bennett said...

David, I’m so glad my take on the thrust of your post about Shanks hit a chord with you, and I completely agree about how one man allows his pictures to speak of his meditation on the nature of existence while the other, (possibly knowing deep down that his work is shallow) feels the need to tell us of his supposed intentions.

And this ties in with a very deep issue:
The marks the artist makes with the brush are a profoundly moral concern. Moral in the sense that each mark is felt by the artist to be an honest as possible equivalent (likeness) to every visual statement they utter on the surface of the canvas. So the more evocative or abstract or broader the mark, so does the moral imperative to mean what they say by it. This is why the ‘late style’ or ‘old age style’ of an artist is often much broader, relaxed and suggestive than their earlier periods; with so little time left, why waste it with bullshit? My teacher, Patrick George said; “You never get any better, you just have more of an idea of what you want to do.”
The detailed rendering is a cloak behind which Shanks hides. But it is not detailed rendering that is necessarily at issue; with people like David Inshaw, Andrew Wyeth or Stanley Spencer, because of their temperaments, it is, for them, a means by which they wear their heart on their sleeve.

Anonymous said...

Shanks uses his wife's hands for the female portraits. In his painting of the Pope, he used his own (Shanks) hands!

Anonymous said...

Frankly, anyone who suggests that Shanks is a 'horrible painter', 'unskilled painter' or 'untalented' doesn't know a lick about the painting traditions he upholds

There are worlds of nuances and refinements in Shanks' work that I suspect just aren't registering with a lot of posters here. And like so many things in art, getting them to register isn't purely (if even at all) a matter of dialectic. Sorry; I really don't know what else to say.

Chris James said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris James said...

Awful, garish color. But he wouldn't be the first nor will he be the last modern realist guilty of this. The abuse of the term "classical" by these studios is what gets my goat. Not in form, technique, or vision are these works classical or upholding any such tradition.

Anonymous said...

I never liked Shank's work , but would also like to see some of his early work for comparison . Like Kincaid , who did that book with Gurney and early on looked like a promising plein air painter , perhaps he went in the direction of a markets ignorant demand .

The debate is like a topic discussed on this and other forums/blogs - Frazetta vs Boris --- Shanks vs R.Schmid , Lipking , Leffel , Sherry Mcgraw .

One could defend Boris's detail and call Frazetta lazy for leaving areas unfinished . It takes a lot more skill , knowledge , taste , and guts to do what Frazetta does than Boris's languid polishing of toenails etc. Suggestion allows the viewer to complete the painting in one's own mind , and will look fresh and different in repeated viewings . Also don't care for Shanks paint quality - opaque , as opposed to using transparent translucent and opaque passages . His work looks pasty chalky and like C.Bennet I find something depressing about it , that I don't in Schmid and company's .

Al McLuckie

Laurence John said...

agreed about the paint quality Al,

for those thinking "well, his figures might be a bit stiff, but he's technically good" sorry, there's nothing interesting about the paint surface in these works.
colours are chalky. everything is light and fluffy, and softly blended. they could almost be pastel. there are no decisive marks anywhere. no risky-taking flicks of the brush. no exciting passages of brushwork. just a fluffy evenness of surface from top left to bottom right.

Chris James said...

I have to third the paint quality sentiment. I was going to point it out myself, but I don't think it's fair to single out Shanks. I see it in a ton of modern painting, illustration. Often splotchy, chalky, flat, The beauty of oil is its translucency, its resinous glow. A Van Eyck or Rembrandt dazzles centuries later, in person. I think it has to do with modern materials and methods. Store bought paints, un-treated oils, absorbent grounds, low-grade solvents.

There has been a movement in modern times towards the idea that the mediums of the masters were simpler than once believed, that there was no more than oil and solvent involved. I think this is only half true. The ingredients were simple, but the oils were put through various processes to achieve the effects that you see in classical paintings. Lead treatments, heating, sun exposure, combinations with resins, beeswax, etc. You can't achieve the body in transparent paints you see in a Rubens with oil and solvent alone.

At the other extreme, opposite of simplicity, are the complicated combinations and cooking processes, like that which you find in the creation of black oil.

David Apatoff said...

Greg Newbold wrote: "The problem I have with a lot of the atelier trained realist painters is the tendency to simply show off their ability to replicate an object in paint..."

I have the same concern. You can find on line (and on the ARC web site) hundreds of meticulous paintings by technicians, but then every once in a while, one artist just glows by comparison. They stand out from all the others. The difference seems so obvious to me, and yet it's so difficult to measure or even describe in objective terms. Perhaps it's the counterpart of the challenge we discussed about unskilled, naive art: how do we objectively distinguish "spontaneous" from "sloppy," or "loose" from "lazy"?

Chris Bennett-- and of course, as Wyeth matured he became more selective with that detail. Like Rembrandt, he'd sometimes have sharp detail in areas of emphasis, contrasted with broad expanses of almost abstract brush strokes and spatters. It's interesting that Shanks seems to have evolved in the opposite direction. His earlier work was looser, while he is painting individual eyelashes in his 70's.

etc, etc wrote: "There are worlds of nuances and refinements in Shanks' work that I suspect just aren't registering with a lot of posters here. And like so many things in art, getting them to register isn't purely (if even at all) a matter of dialectic."

Well, for my money that's the time when it's most worthwhile trying to communicate (assuming you believe your audience is open minded enough to give fair consideration to "worlds of nuances and refinements" that they might be missing). After all, if this was just a site for people to feel good about reinforcing their existing biases, it would've worn thin years ago.

Here's my view of it: if your point is just that technical facility by itself deserves more credit than I am giving it, or that you personally prefer skin tones painted with that kind of embalming fluid look, then we simply have a difference of taste that I agree is probably beyond the reach of debate. But if you think Shanks is working in a tradition I don't understand, and his success deserves to be measured by criteria that are lost on me, that's exactly the kind of thing I most want to learn about. If you don't want to elaborate in this forum, you can always write me at (Of course, as you wrote to anonymous, you aren't "under any obligation whatsoever.")

Anonymous said...

Lawrence Goon - er John - as you mentioned , risk taking , and the absence of it in Shank's and others work - I recall A. Wyeth writing about having spent months on a piece - 90% finished , then hurling a bowl of pigment on it and running out of the room in horror at possibly having ruined the piece . Then coming back and rescuing it , and if successful , giving it a quality it would never have had from "playing it safe ".

I'm not sure someone who hasn't struggled with painting recognizes that quality readily - but that lack of perfection , the sense of the artist reaching for something and being slightly out of control in the reaching , is one of the things I love to see in art ,

Al McLuckie

Anonymous said...


When I referred to refinements in Shanks' work I specifically had in mind the technical aspects of his work. I'll restate my lack of confidence in dialectic to resolve the issue this way: I don't believe that I would have ever come to recognize and appreciate the refinements in Shanks' work apart from many many hours of personal painting experience. In my mind, to understand them is to appreciate them. One might actually understand them and not even like Shanks' work as a whole, but the wholesale dismissal of Shanks here (at least you made sane comparisons from other portrait artists) just cries ignorance.

Aleš said...

I consider good technique to be an important part of painting because it enables an unhindered path for an idea to reach the viewer, but the technique itself cannot substitute or compensate for the lack of imagination and sensitively expressed content. Therefore it cannot save the painting in my eyes. Yes, technique has it's own achievement levels and it's own methods, formulas, tricks, it can demonstrate conventions and educations, so it can be valued on it's own terms. But when I look at an image I'm only interested in meaningful sensitive communication. I think ones technique is supposed to be a natural consequence of artist's struggle with aspiration to achieve the most direct expression of a particular idea. And a great technique consequently appears fluid and easy and it doesn't fight the content for attention. Sadly, I don't feel that Shanks art here meets these expectations.

Aleš said...

David - Greg Newbold and Ales-- Shanks is so acclaimed, I expected to take a real beating in these comments.

I actually agree with you most of the time, David, and I learn from you too, I just don't write much because you have many people here who are smarter than me. But when I saw you chatting with spambots in some of the previous posts I realized that maybe we should write to you more. :P

Laurence John said...


the problem with this post is that you've chosen Shanks as an exemplar of 'technical virtuosity' when there's nothing remarkable about his technique at all. in fact, it's sadly lacking in many areas, as the above comments attest.

may i suggest Jeremy Geddes as someone who's technique is more deserving of the term 'virtuosic' ?
he shares a similar evenness of finish to Shanks, and there's also plenty of detail (should you require detail as proof of virtuosity), but with far more interesting use of lighting, colour palette, space, composition etc.

i realise he's a completely different type of painter (his work is more surreal / cinematic) but still, if we' re going to talk about technique alone, we should at least start with artists with no obvious technical deficiencies, and from there we can move on to the artistic merits of technical skill. no ?

Robert Cook said...

When looking at the work of Shanks and many--though not necessarily all--of the young academicians becoming prominent today, one is reminded, if one needed reminding, why the so-called Impressionists revolted against the French Academy, which produced similarly facile and still-born pictures. Robert Liberace, a highly skilled draughstman, produces paintings that are pure kitsch. I do like the work of Michael Grimaldi, whose works depict scenes of brooding silence.

HL said...

Re: realistic painters that leave you cold. I think it was Rockwell who compared painting a picture to bouncing a ball against the wall. It's not enough to throw the ball with enough force that it reaches the wall; you need to add some extra oomph so it bounces and comes back to you. Same thing with painting: to connect with the viewer, it's not enough to paint what's in front of you. You also need to add that extra bit of who knows what.

Richard said...

I don't think much of Shanks.

However, a handful of good friends, recent Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts grads, lived in the Incamminati building (the Wolf building), and in visiting them I would regularly see the man and his students.

While unimpressed with Shanks, the work his students produce was quite astonishing, at least what I would see in passing.

If nothing else, he's an excellent teacher.

Frebnedzo said...

I don't find the paintings interesting though I don't usually find portraits interesting : like 'academic nudes', it is a figure without a story (or as I prefer to call it 'still life with tits'). As background, I like Eric Fischl, who, like Magritte, has the right technique to tell his stories. Regarding Shanks fine art paintings, I see them as similar to but much less interesting than Philip Pearlstein or Jack Beal.

Anonymous said...

An interesting post. It made me look more critically at the paintings. And there is a wrongness in everyone of them. I am not an artist, but I can tell if something isn't quite right in color, proportion, shadow. I don't understand why the paintings show so much meaningless junk around the portraits. And that junk seems to overtake the portrait itself. There is no place for your eyes to focus. Some details are too fuzzy others are too sharp. Even to my amateur eye there is no poetry, these look stiff, unflattering, unappealing. Might as well take a photograph, it would at least be more truthful. What is the point of art when one doesn't want to look at it?

Anonymous said...

His works feels like he has a cartoonist's sensibility and little more.
Almost as if Bill Plympton decided to become a portrait painter.

The 'crown' of a great artist, is their personal style and taste.
Their language and originality. Monsieur Shanks is all technique, minus talent.

Anonymous said...

His works feels like he has a cartoonist's sensibility and little more.
Almost as if Bill Plympton decided to become a portrait painter.

The 'crown' of a great artist, is their personal style and taste.
Their language and originality. Monsieur Shanks is all technique, minus talent.

Anonymous said...

just negative comments about one of the most gifted painter in our time. nelson shanks honed that skill for many years not just some abstract dripping of paints that you can do overnight it takes time to build the skill to be able to reproduce a 3 dimensional form on a flat surface. drawing from a live model with ease beautiful drawing anatomy values color harmony color temperature. His paintings has a high value because only he can provide that kind of work most of you that commented here cant even do half of what he has done and you judge him of his work as unartistic or flat or dull of whatever negative comment you have to say. well i looked at some of your works i get that its your own opinion but YOU ARE NOT CREDIBLE to judge the master your works speak for itself, works that are good for childrens book are you kidding. The only person credible are those who can do that kind of work masters in their own regard as for you people you dont matter. thats why most people just resort to abstract because they cant draw as good it is okay to do abstract or anthingelse but you should be good at drawing it is the fundamental abstract is just deduction of nature. Appreciate great works.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- You may be correct about Nelson Shanks being one of the most gifted painters of our time, if you consider that the alternatives include awful painters such as Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. But personally, I can think of about 200 painters that I'd say are superior.

I must disagree with you that "The only [critics] credible are those who can do that kind of work." You assume that his critics here wish they could paint the way Shanks does, but lack the skill and the patience. However, many people here (myself included) regard Shanks as basically a "meat camera" and would view it as a major waste of time to acquire those skills, absent some spirit and humanity and taste to animate lifeless, hyper realistic images and infuse them with humanity.

Anonymous said...

Nelson Shanks was a wonderful person, and a capable painter. No matter if some of us choose to paint differently, he could at least be recognized for his prolific work and an independent style that focused more on color calibration than on harmonization or chiaroscuro. My own work could always be different in that I appreciate the harmony of color in a Dutch painting, such as the ones of Vermeer. Yet I recognize Shanks' willingness to draw attention to color as reasonable since he gave so many understanding of color principals to fall back on. Why so many artists feel inclined to damage reputations because they can't see value in someone's work, I do not understand. There are many great painters right now, and few who are real masters. Nelson stands alone in his attempt to take intense color and put it into a classical, formal techniques of realism. If it has not been done perfectly yet, at least some could admire the man for strength of spirit and bold attempts.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- I have no personal experience with Shanks so I have to hold open the possibility that he was, as you say, a "wonderful person." One can only tell a limited amount about a person from the written record.

However, to me it's pretty clear that Shanks' trick with the Clinton portrait was dishonest, and petty. In addition the text on his web site strikes me as smug, arrogant and immature. From talking to someone who discussed a commission with him, Shanks appeared to have an inflated sense of his worth and his historical significance. Some people might think this collection of attributes makes Shanks less than a "wonderful person" even if they didn't think think his art was a boring realism.

Unknown said...

First, I studied with Shanks at the Art Students League here in New York.
I consider him a master painter, with some reservation.
One of his problems, is he uses too much showing off in his details. To paint every vein in a hand gets to be quite ugly,
especially on female hands.

The dumbest thing he ever said was, "An eye chart is to literature, what a Rothko is to painting".
He clearly hated modern art.

Shanks must have been a republican, to make such a big deal out of the blue dress.
I'd been to his mansion in Andalusia where he had a huge amount of old master paintings.
Anyway, there's much to be admired, and a lot to cringe at.

Unknown said...

Shanks is a great master and the people that put him down cannot see what he saw what he sees, what a real artist sees just details and resemblances but much much deeper than that. th
People that put him down just have no idea of what his painting is all about,they can't see beyond surface,sad for them

Unknown said...

Some of these comments are indicative of the myopia of the people who make the commenys or the very fixed ideas that have about painting or realistic painting or portrait painting and the like . Shanks could see what most painters,what most people in fact cannot see, that's what made him great not just his ability to painting detail or resemblance he went way beyond that,those who can't see,well,they just can't see

Unknown said...

Not true re his wife's hands he did use his own hands at times for the Pope's portrait

Unknown said...

I agree,just plain ignorance and the lack of depth perceptions

Unknown said...

Don't make the mistake Nelson made knocking down after part I was a close friend of his and he had a blind spot as great as he was as in Mortal as his paintings are he had blind spots nothing down modern contemporary abstract art

Unknown said...

Plain bunk,sorry

John Delavega said...

, many of these comments come from people who have no idea what painting is about in fact what art is about even people who appear to know better are speaking from boxes in their brains sad very sad

The Weekend Painter said...


Some of these things can be described as differences in taste. It doesn't mean the man copied photographs or lacked artistic talent. Some figure painters I knew in NY were put off by his use of bright colors as they had been trained to use earth pigments, flake white and cold black with a model under north light. Shanks often put the models under bright studio lights that made them look rather orange.

Sometimes the students at Shanks' workshops were turned off by his ego (he thought well of his work and methods). Or they didn't like how he focused on technical strengths as a key to great painting (he could do what few others could in that regard).

One painter didn't like Shanks' clear dislike for modern art or his not-so-politically correct depiction of nude women, who appear pretty and enticing. One professional painter said that he was turned off by the still life objects in the paintings (theater masks and glitter and sequined things), which he referred to as "Euro kitsch." This painter also thought Shanks had a ridiculously intense palette with all the cads and pthalo greens, almost as if the guy were trying to use the most obnoxious and expensive colors. That palette could cost a workshop student upwards of $300, there were very few cheap earth colors and no black.

The professional painter also thought Shanks also had a weird way of moving during his demonstrations. During a workshop, Shanks would put down his soda, stare intensely at the model as his very stiff back faced the audience, then swish his hips a bit from left to right just before he made some quick gestures on the canvas. It was kind of funny.

Regardless of his faults I think if you saw a Shanks painting in real life you might view it differently. He had an OCD attraction to color and description of objects - many artists did - Fragonard liked to describe dainty feet, Da Vinci liked to describe very old or haggard people in his sketchbooks, Michelangelo liked bulbous muscle.

If you get to see one in person you'll notice how thoughtfully Shanks worked with the intensity and placement of lights and shadows, which is quite interesting for a painting that cannot glow. You can't walk into a room and not be mesmerized by one of the things in real life - whereas a traditional figure painting will often blend into a muted wall or corner of a room. If you look at Shanks' figures up close he creates some masterful transitions in skin from light to shadow, in describing textures and his use of composition and light is very strong.

I don't think it's a bad thing that he added the shadow to the Clinton painting, same as when Goya made some not-so-nice depictions of the Spanish royal family or when a painter depicted Queen Mary of England with a flat chest and cold expression (she was losing pregnancies at this point and not able to provide an heir - burn). Painters used to have the ability to make historical statements through their work, not just make a slick commission that looked pretty on the wall. Most of Shanks' portraits fell into the later category, though.

Regarding Shanks' focus on technical skill, technical exploration isn't a bad thing and as the modernists taught a work of art doesn't always have to be about a meaning of the surface matter like the person or a still life object - it can involve the actual introspective process creating the objects - the interplay of colors, use of line, light and so forth. Doesn't really matter if that process is abstract or realist or whatever.

The Weekend Painter said...


Even given Shanks' technical ability he isn't ever copying anything - none of those real women have purple knobby knee caps or phosphorescent red ear lobes. He played with anatomy too, stretching out necks and exaggerating the size of joints. It's the masterful integration of all of the colors, shadows and details that make us think it's realistic even though it actually looks as though it was filmed in some private candy land where everything is a brighter and richer than in real life.

Sometimes I think people don't like his work because he paints everything beautifully and optimistically. There is no hatred, shame or self-loathing in a Shanks painting, whereas in post-WWII Western art this seems to be a common theme. People are instantly suspicious, they think that the art should reflect angst or doubt or self-loathing and his paintings do not, they are just beautifully, to the point of being painfully distasteful to modern sensibilities.

I had the opportunity to visit Shanks' home in '04 and see to his art collection. He had a giant art library and his first floor was covered in 16th through 17th century oil masterpieces, everything from chariot races to religious scenes of the Christ or Madonnas, done usually in a much more muted palette with a lot of blacks and browns as was common back then. His kids (then very young) also played classical piano with the skill level of a music student in college. He didn't spare any expense with the idea of mastery.

Shanks seemed to view the depiction of beauty as some kind of humanistic statement common to the highest examples of Western art. Maybe its naive but it was how he rebelled against all of the sensibilities of more recent modern art.

Can't say I think too much of the instructors at his school though, although they are mostly nice people and skilled. Both students and teachers all copy the model and use color in the same way - which is reminiscent of a Shanks but never reaches the same levels of talent or absurdity. The only thing differentiating the studies is who can draw a little more accurately than the next person, and how fast they can move on from the gesture to blocking in light and shadow.

What the students end up with is not a Nelson Shanks necessarily. The colors tend to look extreme and discordant. Some of the pieces feel dead inside, and depict stuff like an empty can soda on a table. I have to wonder where is the art and the passion in any of it, and whats the point in using high chroma.

Only the teachers with previous experience in illustration or fine art, Steve Early or Darren Kingsley, seemed to have something impressive and thoughtful in their work that went beyond any training at the school.

David Apatoff said...

The weekend painter-- Thank you for your long and thoughtful analysis of Shanks and his work. You obviously have a great deal of expertise in this field and I enjoyed your comments. I hope you will stick around and comment on other topics if they happen to strike your fancy.

While I don't agree with everything you say, I thought all of your comments were fair, measured and insightful. I appreciate the fact that you saw, and were able to articulate, multiple sides of the issue. In that way, I think you've made as strong a case for Shanks as I've ever seen anyone make. The sycophants who write in only to praise Shanks and who are blind to his conspicuous flaws don't persuade anyone.

I agree that "Some of these things can be described as differences in taste," and a large number of participants on this blog could easily be accused of a "clear dislike for modern art" or a "not-so-politically correct depiction of nude women." Similarly, I don't think too many people here would be turned off by use of photo reference in this day and age, and we've all had to get accustomed to artists with big egos (if they deserve them).

A few points: I've seen about ten paintings by Shanks in "real life," and while their technical proficiency was (for the most part) dazzling, seeing them up close did nothing to change my view of their artistic merit. Most recently I studied at length his major portrait of the four first female Supreme Court Justices, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and I'm sorry to say that personally I found it hideous. If you ever make it to Washington DC I would be interested in your opinion. I know for a fact that the female justices were deeply disappointed by it, and compared notes amongst themselves. If you compare Shanks' portrait of Justice Kagan with the portrait that Burt Silverman did two years earlier (now hanging at Harvard where she was the dean of the Law School) to me Silverman's portrait is far superior.

I fully agree with you about Early and Kingsley.

Finally, I still stand by my view that Shanks was a jackass for the way he handled the shadow in the Clinton portrait. I don't think the situation was comparable to Goya at all. Goya hid his political beliefs because he lived in fear of being tortured to death by the Spanish inquisition when he wasn't threatened by war, illness and poverty. Shanks, on the other hand, became wealthy serving rich patrons through a lifetime of uninterrupted peace and prosperity. He had complete freedom of speech and did not need to lie about his intentions in order to win that Clinton portrait, and yet he did. Having lied, I think it was shameful to run to People Magazine afterwards to brag about how he had duped his client. Goya understood the grand tragedy of life and was playing for real stakes. Shanks strikes me as an immature twerp whose ego ran away with him.

duge_buwembo said...

David Kassan is the king of detail I can see the criticism levied at his work for literally painting warts and all. Ultimately it's his aesthetic you read art for what it is and that is the expression of the artist. But David Kassan definetly paints in the uncanny valley.....

duge_buwembo said...

This assessment is so false, Shanks painted from life and used an extensive colour pallette the use of colour alone shows that what he painted was more than real which is what naturalism is all about.

Atelier trained artists are taught to paint naturalistically rather than the mechanical photo realists. Which is how false these comments are in reference to shanks work. Spend time learning about Atelier training, it's a focused, creative and complex activity that involves seeing and conceptualising the space and then translating that on to a two dimensional canvas. Their is nothing mechanical about it it's not like photography it's an interpretation. Classical realist Atelier trained work is more than real and requires so much more skill and experience than that photorealists.....

duge_buwembo said...

Also Rembrandt and certain great masters are a rarity. Rembrandt is a pinnacle in regards to classical art, a once in a generation. There is a lot of derivative and dull art from that period. You can't talk about Rembrandt and apply that to the entire art scene at the time.,..

duge_buwembo said...

The sentiments here are shocking given the state of modern art. You need to hurry yourself down to a gallery and see figurative a portraiture from untrained artists. Time and time again I would choose an old master exhibition any day of the week.

There is so much low quality artwork out there with many people mistaking photorealism for naturalism. You need to really check these comments, Ateliers are teaching students naturalism, drawing and painting from life via an interpretation of what they see. They are doing work far better than the hundreds of photorealists out there producing cold mechanical art and calling themselves artists. Yet you talk about naturalism in the same vein....... Soarley mistaken....

duge_buwembo said...

Before you slate Nelson for technique you need to spend time looking at his approach and technique. His Atelier studio Incamminati teaches a lot direct painting approach without transfer drawing like other Ateliers like Florence Academy of Art teaches. It's a lively and energetic process and given that the colour pallette is so large the grasp of using so much color is quite masterful. Remember that the classical approach praises the less is more mantra,small limited pallettes rather than large and vibrant.....

duge_buwembo said...

His paintings aren't hyperreal. Gosh you people cannot see the difference between a chuck close and Nelson shanks. Nelson worked by eye, the very nature of classical draughtsmanship is that you work from life conceptualising what you are seeing on the fly and he worked quickly and confidently. You cannot dismiss his work in line with photorealists, a photo realist produces work in a child like manner of copying using grids to get an exact replica. This process is not really artistic, naturalists conceptualise and interpret what they see they do not take photographs. What you are saying about Nelson is the complete opposite of his process. Art is all about process ask any artist. It's just that Nelson's draughtsmanship as a realist is so high that you are mistaking his work for photorealism. Nelson is a naturalist and you should respect the process and understand how these paintings were achieved.....

duge_buwembo said...

Fully agree with your analysis of studio Incamminati, the artists and instructors at the school with previous experience and clearly talented stand out....