Auction House January 25, 2022

Master to Master: The Nelson Shanks Collection

Live Auction: 27 January 2022 • 2:00 PM EST • New York

Sotheby’s is honored to present the collection of Nelson Shanks (1937 – 2015), American realist painter and portraitist to international leaders and celebrities. In addition to his own work, Shanks was renowned for his collection of Old Master paintings, sculpture, drawings, furniture, and decorative arts, all of which are offered in this exceptional sale. Shanks established a studio, art school and home in Pennsylvania, where visitors to his collection admired the high quality and rarity of the works by the most important Italian baroque artists. Highlights from the sale include a monumental masterpiece by Neapolitan artist Mattia Preti, with provenance dating back to its commission, a rare mature work by Guido Cagnacci, and a magnificent Venus by Dosso Dossi, which was thought to be lost until Shanks recognized it and acquired it. Shanks delighted in researching new acquisitions, and indeed correctly identified several works sold anonymously at auction: in addition to the Dosso, he recognized the quality of the MolaScarsellino, and Del Cairo in this sale, which are all accepted as autograph works.

From Shanks’s own hand we are delighted to offer head studies for four commissioned portraits painted by Shanks of Princess DianaLuciano PavarottiRenée Fleming, and Presidents Reagan and Clinton. Shanks was beloved for his ability to capture the inner mood and personality of his sitters, whom he painted from life over many sittings, following painterly tradition dating back to the Renaissance. It is no surprise, given his love for both realist painting and life study and the art of seventeenth century Italy, that he named his own art school, Studio Incamminati, after the academy founded by the Carracci family in Bologna.

Master to Master: The Nelson Shanks Collection

Visit the Exhibition

Masters Week exhibitions open at 10am on January 22 with the final sale exhibitions closing on January 27 at 5pm.  To schedule an appointment to view the exhibitions in person, please click here or contact or +1 212 606 7171. Walk-ins are also welcome. You can read more about our safety requirements here.

Nelson Shanks (1937 – 2015)



John Nelson Shanks was born in 1937 in Rochester, NY and grew up in Wilmington, DE before training at the Kansas City Art Institute and the famous Art Students League in New York. From the beginning of his career he was enthralled by realism, and paid his tuition in New York by working as a class monitor for Robert Brackman, Ivan Olinsky and Edwin Dickinson, in addition to taking private courses with realists John Koch and Henry Hensche. Shanks received grants from the Greenshields Foundation and Stacy Foundation to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, and upon his return began a teaching career.

“I like to think and design in color.” NELSON SHANKS

Shanks served on the faculty of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League, National Academy of Design, George Washington University and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He established a studio and home in Bucks County, PA, where he taught for over 30 years. He offered an apprenticeship program there with free room and board and tuition. After a series of successful workshops for realist painters in the late 1990s, Nelson and his wife Leona founded the Studio Incamminati in 2002. Incamminati translates roughly to “those who are progressing,” and the name pays homage to the Accademia degli Incamminati established by the Carracci family in the sixteenth century, where artists learned the principles of naturalism and realism. Like his Renaissance and baroque predecessors, Shanks valued studying nature and the human form and capturing beauty in color and light. In 2006 Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell honored Shanks with the Governor’s Distinguished Arts Award for his contributions to the arts of the commonwealth, in particular his commitment to teaching and the work of the Studio Incamminati.



Recognized for his ability to capture the inner life of his sitters, Shanks received many prestigious commissions to paint politicians, royalty, and celebrities. Some of his most famous portraits include those of Pope John Paul II for the Vatican Museums, Presidents Bill Clinton (see lot 114) and Ronald Reagan (see lot 112) for the National Portrait Gallery, and Princess Diana (see lot 110) for Kensington Palace. Other royal sitters include King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden and Queen Silvia of Sweden, and Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg sat to Nelson, as did former New York Mayor and businessman Michael Bloomberg and former Prime Minister of Britain Margaret Thatcher. He also portrayed Luciano Pavarotti (see lot 111) and Renee Fleming (see lot 113) for the Metropolitan Opera, former director of the National Gallery of Art J. Carter Brown, head of the Washington Post Katharine Graham. Shanks’s paintings have been exhibited at the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in Washington, Kensington Palace, and the Royal Palace in Stockholm. In 2011 he became one of only two living American artists to be invited to exhibit at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the Russian Academy of Art, Moscow, where he had a solo exhibition.

“If you really want to seriously think about life, and therefore take painting very seriously…and take seriously the joys that it can bring to one, then you want to go to museums. You want to study the great art of the past…” NELSON SHANKS

In addition to his prolific artistic practice, in which he painted nearly every day of his entire career, Nelson was an avid collector of painting, sculpture, drawings, and furniture, with a special affinity in the Italian baroque period. He collected over several decades and had a keen eye for identifying works by great masters even when they were not catalogued as such.


Recollections of Nelson ShanksBy D. Dodge Thompson

Nelson Shanks was unsurpassed as a practitioner and teacher of traditional painting techniques handed down from the Italian Renaissance. Most formative was his time in Florence at the Accademia de Belle Arti studying under Pietro Annigoni (1919–1988), the eminent and outspoken classical realist who became a model for Shanks’s career. Annigoni had studied the techniques of the Renaissance masters and, as a portraitist, had welcomed commissions of celebrated sitters. Just as Annigoni portrayed Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John XXIII, and John F. Kennedy, so Shanks would eventually paint portraits of Ronald Reagan (see lot 112), Margaret Thatcher (fig. 1), Princess Diana (see lot 110) and later her brother Lord Spencer (both portraits now at Althorp), and Pope John Paul II (fig. 2).



I first met Nelson Shanks in the early 1970s, when I was a young curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He lived in a romantic house adjacent to a historic water mill in New Hope, Pennsylvania, surrounded by his own paintings-in-process and the beginnings of what was to become a museum-quality collection of Old Master paintings and applied arts. Visiting curators soon recognized that Nelson’s well-trained eye was remarkable and his knowledge of the Old Masters prodigious. Examples from his personal collection are now in the Princely Collections of Liechtenstein, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and others.



Years later in the 1990s I reconnected with Nelson when, with the support of a friend and patron, I started commissioning portraits of international figures. My patron and I selected American artists to paint portraits of “the good and the great” with the understanding that they would be offered either to the National Portrait Gallery or the National Gallery of Art (former NGA director J. Carter Brown had in fact been twice portrayed by Nelson Shanks). To this end, Nelson completed portraits of Mstislav (“Slava”) Rostropovich (2006), the Soviet and Russian cellist, conductor, and human-rights advocate; Harvard Professor of Comparative Zoology Edward O. Wilson, called “Darwin’s heir” and considered the founder of sociobiology as well as biodiversity conservation; and The Four Justices,2012, the expansive group portrait of the first four women who served as U.S. Supreme Court Justices (inevitably called “The Supremes” by the staff of the NPG). These works of Nelson Shanks are today much-admired at the National Portrait Gallery.

Finally, Nelson has left one other living testimony to his passionate belief in the centuries-old tradition of painting from life. In 2002 Shanks, ever the enthusiastic and inspiring teacher, and his wife Leona established in South Philadelphia the vibrant Studio Incamminati, an art school founded under the reformist, anti-Mannerist spirit of the Carracci cousins in Bologna at the end of the sixteenth-century. The U.S. and international students of the Studio Incamminati carry on Nelson Shanks’s artistic vision in Philadelphia every day, much as he envisioned.


This article originally appeared at