The Taos painters, Ms. Broder is careful to stress at the outset of this perfectly wonderful book, were not a school like the Brandywine or Hudson Valley , bound by a shared philosophy of art. Rather, they were individuals of widely varying artistic styles and backgrounds who came to Taos, N.M., to paint in the first quarter of this century and formed the Taos Society of Artists (extant from 1915 to 1927) for the purpose of exhibiting and drawing wider attention to their works. None among them - Irving Crouse, Walter Ufer, Catharine Critcher, Ernest L. Blumenschein, Victor Higgins, to name a few - could be placed among the front rank of painters of that, or even a less fertile artistic period. Yet, all approached painting with a sincerity and an enthusiastic vitality that gives their work a quality that might be described in these words, ''they painted the way one imagines America, as a nation, felt then - filled with optimism, curious , ingenuous, and ready to be awed by life.''
These paintings of Indians, the desert, Spanish-American settlements, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, cowboys, and vanished ritual, are often illustrative and, while stylized, are always representational. In this way, they were out of step with the main artistic currents of their time -- a time presided over by Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, cubism, and abstraction. The most painterly works are those of Higgins; next, Blumenschein. It isn't to slight the pleasure derived from viewing the bulk of the works, to say that they are of interest primarily for what they document about our national heritage, in their subjects and in the way of seeing of those who painted them. The numerous color and black-and-white reproductions are beautifully presented. Ms. Broder writes with the charm and skill of a novelist. Her biographies of each of the 10 artists are enthralling, and her passion for this period, its paintings and painters is contagious.