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nelson shanks

The secret is out about the latest presidential portrait.

By Edward J. Sozanski

You and I aren't supposed to know this, but Bucks County artist Nelson Shanks is painting a portrait of William Jefferson Clinton for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. This seemingly innocuous fact is being treated as a state secret because the commissioning of presidential portraits for the White House and the portrait gallery, the two principal collections, follows Alice-in-Wonderland logic. Artists are engaged and presidents sit for them, but no one in government will admit that pigment is being applied to canvas until the process is completed and the portraits are unveiled. Not identifying the artists ensures against embarrassment if a portrait is rejected by its subject. Lyndon Johnson denounced Peter Hurd's White House portrait of him as "the ugliest thing I ever saw." Ironically, Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's late brother-in-law, subsequently donated the painting to the portrait gallery.Clinton

Given Shanks' extensive experience, his glittering reputation, and the magnitude of his successes to date, his Clinton portrait isn't likely to flop. He already has one president to his credit - Ronald Reagan, whom he immortalized for the Union League of Philadelphia about the time the 40th president left office in 1988. Reagan isn't even Shanks' most famous subject. That would be the late Princess Diana, whom he painted in 1994. His scrapbook also includes former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (twice), former Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and tenor Luciano Pavarotti. So when President Clinton recently tapped Shanks to put him in the portrait gallery's Hall of Presidents, the 63-year-old artist wasn't awestruck.

"My career doesn't depend on painting Bill Clinton," he remarked during a chat in his studio overlooking the Delaware River in Andalusia. "It's not exactly my direction. I try to push portraits as far as I can beyond the academic, traditional, straightforward boardroom style. I try to bring the art out."

However, the Clinton commission poses a special challenge even for an artist as skilled as Shanks. His interpretation has to concede something to the 200-year-old tradition that requires leaders of the republic to look appropriately august. Tradition has produced a procession of sober poses, dark suits and earnest expressions, softened here and there in more recent portraits by hints of a smile. "I'm not crazy about business suits," Shanks commented, "but there's probably no other way to paint a president right now." Furthermore, he added, the Clinton portrait has to be set in the Oval Office. He isn't sure how he's going to manage that, given that Clinton no longer works there. "I have no idea how I'll get access."

Is Shanks painting the "official" Clinton portrait? It depends on whom you ask. Carolyn Carr, the portrait gallery's deputy director, said there wasn't a single official version among the several that would be created for places such as the Clinton library. Betty Monkman, the White House curator, disagrees: "We consider our portraits the official ones."

A Clinton portrait for the White House collection is also in the works, but Monkman declined to identify the artist who's painting it, in keeping with the aforementioned policy. Monkman did confirm, and Carr concurred, that Shanks isn't painting both portraits, although a few artists have done so. The most recent example was Everett R. Kinstler, who did both Gerald Fords. (Newsweek magazine has reported that Washington artist Simmie Knox, a graduate of Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, is also painting a Clinton portrait, but did not say whether it was for the White House or some other location.)

The secrecy protocol for presidential portraits also deflected a query regarding why Clinton chose Shanks for the portrait gallery commission. A spokeswoman in his transition office said the former president couldn't comment on the matter until the portrait was accepted. Although Shanks' portrait is destined for a public collection, it will be paid for with private funds donated by benefactors who aren't yet being named. Carr said the amount of Shanks' fee hasn't been discussed. He has received about $200,000 for a full-length portrait. Shanks didn't seek the Clinton commission; it came to him, which isn't surprising for an artist who has been described by D. Dodge Thompson, chief of exhibits at the National Gallery of Art, as "the most talented contemporary traditional portraitist."

"A number of collectors of my paintings are connected with the president [Clinton] in one way or another," Shanks said. "There must be 10 people who have told him that I should paint his portrait." The protocol for selection of presidential portraitists puts the White House curator in charge, Carr said. "It goes through a fairly lengthy process of interviewing artists. Our contribution is advisory," she said. "The president decides who he wants to represent

Shanks went down to Washington on Dec. 15 to show Clinton his portfolio, which apparently impressed the president, because the following week, Shanks was asked to do a study. "They gave me an hour and a half at 5:30 on a Monday afternoon," he recalled. "I told them I couldn't do it, that it could take me an hour to get set up, and besides, at that time, it was dark at 5:30. I need daylight." Instead of painting a study from life, Shanks brought a photographer. During a photo session in the private quarters of the White House that lasted about 90 minutes, he clicked off close to 500 exposures. During the session, Shanks said he and the president talked some about books - "I got the impression that he reads a book a day" - and also discussed a Childe Hassam interior, one of several works by the artist hanging in the room. "We also joked a little about presidential portraits," the artist added. "He told me that he and Harrison Ford had been joking recently about how chins drop with age, and he didn't want to look that way." Unfortunately, the photographs in lieu of a life study haven't proved to be very useful.

"I only had one or two that were even conceivably acceptable," Shanks said. "Not one of them would be an expression you'd want to use in a finished painting. "Photographs and reality are just night and day. In reality, the information is all there. A photograph is just kind of a hint." That being the case, and given that Shanks works traditionally, why not make preliminary drawings instead of photos? That's no good either, he replied. "I almost never do drawings, because I have found over the years that doing something in one medium and translating into another doesn't work. I like to conceive a painting in real scale and in color," he explained, noting that the Italian baroque master Caravaggio worked similarly.

To help him do that, Shanks sometimes uses custom-made mannequins, especially for clothing details. The one he had made to represent Clinton stands in his studio, dressed in the obligatory conservative suit and holding a portfolio. After the photo session, Shanks put in 10 hours on the portrait in his studio before he was called down to Washington on Jan. 10 so Clinton could examine what he had done. That clinched it. As a Clinton aide explained, "The president was reviewing the work of other artists as well, and he decided to give Nelson Shanks the opportunity to do the portrait gallery portrait." In other words, the commission, still not contractual, was contingent on the president's final approval. Until then, it didn't exist - officially. According to Carr, at that point even the benefactors who were going to pay for the portrait didn't know who was going to paint it. Pending notification of Clinton's availability for posing, Shanks has put the presidential portrait aside to work on several other unfinished commissions, including one for Philadelphia philanthropist Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton.

"As far as I'm concerned, the serious posing hasn't been done," he said. "But I'm now guaranteed that he's going to do considerable sittings. I'm not sure how much that will be, but I'm not going to do any more until I find out." Shanks said that once the posing sessions begin, he might begin the portrait from scratch. "That's probably what will happen, because I can do more from life and get further in a hour than I can in 20 hours from photographs." The artist said that he expected the sittings would take place in the spring, but that location hadn't been decided. "I'm hoping he'll come here. It's also possible in New York because I have a great studio there, and I understand he'll be spending a lot of time in the city."

Shanks said he thought he'd prefer to do a full-length portrait, about seven feet tall by four wide, with Clinton perhaps leaning on a mantle and holding a book. Full-length poses aren't common in presidential portraiture, which began with Gilbert Stuart's famous paintings of George Washington. Both the White House and portrait gallery collections begin with a Stuart. The White House has a version of the so-called Lansdowne portrait, which is full-length, while the gallery owns Stuart's bust-length Athenaeum portrait jointly with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Both collections contain works by highly regarded American painters, although these are more prominent in the 19th century than in the 20th.

Besides Stuart, White House artists include John Trumbull, John Vanderlyn, Rembrandt Peale, Samuel F.B. Morse, Eastman Johnson and John Singer Sargent. The portrait gallery has some of these, plus George Caleb Bingham, Edmund C. Tarbell and Norman Rockwell, who did President Nixon. By and large, though, neither portrait collection is first-rate in aesthetic terms, especially for the decades after World War I. The quality at the White House began to slide after Sargent painted Theodore Roosevelt and Anders Zorn portrayed William Howard Taft. Zorn's painting of Grover Cleveland is one of the most animated portraits at the gallery. Generally speaking, though, the examples there, like many at the White House, are pedestrian.

Shanks is hoping to achieve a more distinguished result.

"There are times when I love to play all kinds of complicated games in painting," he observed. "But I think this is one case when 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."

Edward J. Sozanski's e-mail address is esozanski@phillynews.com.
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