Artists/the arts; The Great Book of French Impressionism, by Diane Kelder. New York: Abbeyville Press. $100.

This jumbo-size volume will be difficult to hide until he holidays; with pages measuring 12 by 15 inches, it must rank as one of the season's biggest. Its spectacularly detailed prints of many of the world's Impressionist masterpieces -- over 450 in all, 200 of them in color -- make it outstanding in quantity and quality.

Today's generation looks back at the Impressionist period as one of the happiest in all of art -- sunlit landscapes in bright colors that delight the eye. The style appeared at a time of near-perfection in classical academic painting skills. Yet the invention of photography presented a profound challenge to the classical school. Here was a process that could reproduce exactly what the eye saw, and in far greater detail and accuracy than the artist ever could.

Painters reconsidered their view of the world. Perhaps their role was to be found not so much in recording photo-realism as in exploring the less tangible -- atmosphere, light, color, wind. For a few artists in Paris, the world became an "impression." Diane Kelder, an art history professor, traces the development of Impressionism in a lively text that complements the illustrations. Lovers of this period will want to consider this impressive new guide.

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