Sumptuous glimpse inside the Metropolitan; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Howard Hibbard. New York: Harper & Row. $50 .

The only problem with Howard Hibbard's huge and profusely illustrated book "The Metropolitan Museum of Art" is that it could keep a lazy person from ever visiting the Metropolitan itself.

"Why go," he might ask himself, "when I have the museum's best art right here in this book?"

The answer to that, of course, is that no reproduction can adequately convey the full impact or nuance of a work of art. And that, regardless of the number of works of art illustrated in it, this or any other book can only scratch the surface of the Metropolitan's rich and varied collections.

These collections would never have to come into being except for the feeling on the part of a number of Americans in 1866 that the time was ripe for a great national museum. The idea took hold, and in 1870 the New York Legislature established the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the purpose of "encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of the arts to manufacture, of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects, and to that end, of furnishing popular instruction and recreation."

Since that time the Metropolitan has grown to become one of the truly great museums of the world, rivaling the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris with a collection that embraces the art of all cultures and all times.

To cover the highlights of that collection in pictures and in prose, and by doing so to also present the reader with a general history of world art, was the task confronting Dr. Hibbard when he began this book.

That he succeeded is a tribute to his wide knowledge and understanding of the history of art (he is currently professor and chairman of the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University), to his style of writing, which is clear, authoritative, and breezy -- all at the same time -- and to the various individuals who helped in the selection of the book's 1,050 illustrations.

The book itself is divided into 16 sections, with each section covering a particular historical period or geographical region. Beginning with Egypt and the ancient Near East, Dr. Hibbard moves along through Greek and Roman, Early Christian and Byzantine, Islamic, and medieval art, through separate sections devoted to the art of the 15th through the 19th centuries, through American art, the art of the 20th century, Far Eastern art, and, finally, primitive art.

And all that in almost 600 pages of clearly written, entertaining, and illuminating text, well chosen illustrations (over half of which are in color), and detailed captions.

It makes for a very impressive book.

What I found most impressive about it is its overall sense of informality. In light of the immensity of such a project, the temptation to turn it into a ponderous academic study must have been considerable. But to have done so would not only have required several volumes and at least 16 authors rather than one of each, but would also, almost certainly, have turned it into a deadly bore.

What we have instead is a compact, concise, and informal trip through the museum's collections and through art history with an author who confronts the reader more as a patient and entertaining guide than as a stern scholar or teacher. He's a guide who weaves art's historical information, stories about the Metropolitan's acquisition of certain works of art, and personal interpretation into a highly readable and information text.

The most remarkable thing about all this is that Dr. Hibbard, at the same time, is never patronizing, superficial, or trivial. He takes both his task and his readers seriously and retains his good humor and his sense of responsibility to his academic discipline to the very end.

Whatever weaknesses exist in this book are the result of weaknesses in the museum's collections. Any account of the painting of the 17th century, for instance, which fails to include at least a half-dozen of the canvases of Rubens gives a distorted impression of the art of that century. And the same is true of the art of the Renaissance. The museum, and consequently this book, can really only whet our appetite for the great masterpieces of that period, the great majority of which are to be found elsewhere.

But these are minor matters. This book is exactly what it should be: a highly readable, informative, and well-illustrated account of the establishment, the history, and the collections of one of the truly great museums of the world.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.