The 17th was a great century for painting. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, Velazquez, Hals - to name only a few of the greatest - all lived and painted their masterpieces during that century.
More than that, however, the 17th was also a period when painting achieved a profoundly professional level of achievement, when painterly guidelines were so clearly defined that even fourth- and fifth-rate painters were able to produce highly competent works.
France in particular took painting very much to heart during that century, as can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum's current and very major exhibition, ''17 th Century French Paintings in American Collections.'' It brings together 124 of the finest paintings of the period from 58 public and private collections in this country, and was organized jointly by the Metropolitan and the Reunion des Musees Nationaux, Paris.
Although the stars of the show are Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain (both of whom rank among the very greatest European artists of the century), considerable attention is also paid to Georges de la Tour. The latter's ''The Fortune Teller'' is of particular interest - both because of its quality and because it has recently been the subject of a much publicized debate about its authenticity.
Other paintings that caught my eye were Antoine Le Nain's ''Three Young Musicians,'' Simon Vouet's ''St. Jerome and the Angel,'' Louis Le Nain's ''Peasants Before Their House,'' Sebastian Bourdon's ''Landscape With Mill,'' and Philippe de Champaigne's ''Portrait of Omer II Talon.''
Overriding everything else, however, in sheer quality and impact, are the paintings of Poussin and Lorrain. They alone make this exhibition a major event.
After its closing at the Metropolitan Museum on Aug. 22, this excellent show moves to the Art Institute in Chicago, where it will be on view from Sept. 18 through Nov. 28.