In the 1980s and '90s, Diana, Princess of Wales, was photographed shaking hands with patients diagnosed with AIDS. At a time when individuals with the disease were largely ostracized, Diana’s simple extension of empathy helped change perceptions around the world — all with the click of a camera. Her life of activism drew the adoration of many across the globe, immortalizing her as “the people’s princess.”
But her highly public life is known to have taken its toll. And a rare portrait of Diana that sold for more than $200,000 on Jan. 27 appears to reflect that tension.
The portrait — created during her sittings with artist Nelson Shanks in 1994, two years after she separated from Prince Charles — depicts Diana looking to the left, her eyes downcast, with an introspective expression. The oil on canvas work sold for $201,600 — more than 10 times its highest estimate of $20,000, according to the auction house Sotheby’s. The painting was sold as part of an auction of Shanks’ collection, which also includes works of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
According to the notes from Sotheby’s, the portrait is a head study of Diana, who is shown wearing a green halter dress by Catherine Walker. It is an early iteration of the pensive expression that would later define Shanks’ full-length portrait, in which she wears a white blouse instead of the green dress.
“The final portrait reflects the emotional toll of Diana’s public life in the mid-1990s, but also her inner resilience,” according to Sotheby’s notes. That work originally hung in Kensington Palace and now resides in her ancestral home of Althorp, which inspired the sets of “Bridgerton.”
Diana and Shanks developed a friendship throughout her more than 35 hours of sittings with the late American artist for her full-length portrait. In behind-the-scenes photos of the painting process, Diana grins at the camera while Shanks paints at the Tite Street Studio in London. In a 1994 letter, she expressed her fondness for the artist and his wife.
“I do miss you and Leona in London, as coming to the Studio was a safe haven, so full of support and love,” she wrote.
Shanks died at age 77 in 2015 after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Diana’s divorce from Charles was finalized in 1996. In August 1997, in a tragedy that was felt throughout the world, she died from her injuries in a car crash.
Diana’s legacy has endured since her death in popular culture through documentaries, films, such as 2021’s “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart, and television shows, such as “The Crown,” in which Elizabeth Debicki is set to take over the role in its fifth season.