A painter once told me that, for a realist, hands were the most difficult aspect of the human figure to get right. Having seen how many artists have been frustrated by hands, especially in portraiture, I have come to agree.

Hands don't terrorize Nelson Shanks; if anything, he paints them too convincingly, to the point where they become so prominent they can dominate a portrait.

I have observed this phenomenon in earlier exhibitions of his work, and I saw it again in his current show at the James A. Michener Art Museum.

When it comes to anatomical precision, Shanks has long been recognized as a peerless craftsman. His manipulations of light and shadow can produce startling illusions of sculptural relief.

The most dramatic example at Michener is a portrait of Pope John Paul II whose photo-studio lighting creates an almost unnatural tableau-vivant effect.

As we can see in this show of 35 paintings covering four decades, Shanks is a complete master of his tools and his oil medium. He describes his meticulous rendering of figures, whether formal portraits or studio fantasies, as "humanist realism."

"Realism" couldn't be more on target, but "humanist"? I'm not so sure. This is one quality that Shanks' portraits in particular appear to lack. They're "realist" in their extraordinary verisimilitude, but they don't always convey "real life."

A resident of Andalusia in Bucks County, Shanks, now in his mid-70s, has become recognized for portraits of international celebrities, beginning with Diana, Princess of Wales. Besides John Paul II, his subjects include Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

This is a curious exhibition, however, because it contains relatively few formal portraits. A pensive Princess Diana, an imperious Baroness Thatcher, and a jolly John Paul II pretty much represent that aspect of Shanks' career.

The bulk of his Michener subjects are what can be called "characters" - particularly a large cohort of female nudes and semi-nudes in exotic settings, including a contemporary Salome.

All but four of the 35 paintings are figurative; one that isn't depicts a white horse running on Catalina Island under a varicolored sky. I'd like to see more of this side of Shanks. This painting stands out not only for its atypical subject but also because it projects romantic mystery, compared with the forced exoticism common to many of the nudes.

With the latter, Shanks seems to be reviving 19th-century orientalism - posing a female nude in a studio matrix of decorative ephemera such as peacock feathers, brass buckets, small statues, bold textiles, and lots of bracelets and rings.

These images are like fanciful holograms, perfectly realized but emotionally and psychologically hollow. If painting is supposed to be visual magic, then Shanks is the David Copperfield of painters.

The show doesn't seem to have a theme, a sense of time, or any other organizational structure. It doesn't tell its audience much about Shanks or how he thinks about art. We must be content with marveling at his demonstrable skill and his celebrity.

The Diana portrait is the only one in the show that gets beneath the surface of a likeness, that suggests personality or character. As for the pope, if you're expecting another Innocent X (Velazquez) or Paul III (Titian), you'll be disappointed.

The Nelson Shanks exhibition

It continues at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, through Sept. 8. 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 to 5 Saturdays, noon to 5 Sundays. Admission: $15; $13 for seniors; $11 for college students with ID, $7.50 ages 6 to 18. 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.

Blessed are the donors

Art museums acquire new things constantly; over the last five years, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has added more than 8,500 objects to its collection.

The vast majority are gifts; even the Art Museum has relatively little money to buy top-quality art. So the exhibition there called "First Look" is as much a celebration of donor generosity as a sampling of the most recent acquisitions.

Alice Beamesderfer, the museum's deputy director for collections and programs, and Naina Saligram, assistant in the department of European painting, selected 125 objects of various types and periods.

How does one impose order on such a potpourri? In the first of three galleries, Beamesderfer and Saligram grouped portraits and landscapes; in the second, works that refer to nature and folk arts from different cultures, and in the third, art from the modern period.

By their nature, acquisitions shows tend to emphasize variety, so even this scheme becomes subordinate to the quality and appeal of individual objects. Any that I single out ignores 10 others of comparable distinction.

Here are a handful that caught my eye: an early Cezanne view of a fishing village, an 18th-century English mummer's costume, a beet-colored cardboard armchair by architect Frank Gehry, and an exuberant watercolor of an amaryllis plant by Pierre Joseph Redouté.

A noble self-portrait by Philadelphia painter Rembrandt Peale represents the exceptional patronage of the late Robert L. McNeil Jr., who gave more than 1,000 objects to the museum. His gifts also include more than 450 pieces of presidential china and a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Philadelphia socialite Anne Willing Bingham.

"First Look"

It continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Sept. 8. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, to 8:45 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays. Admission: $20; $18 for seniors, $14 for students with ID and ages 13 to 18. 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.

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